The Prevalence of Populational and Negative Facts in Children's Books About Nature


Katie Abelson

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Evolution by natural selection is a theory that has revolutionized the biological sciences but remains largely misunderstood by the general public. Prior research on evolution understanding has linked misconceptions about the nature of species adaptation to seemingly universal cognitive biases, like essentialism and teleology, which constrain how individuals conceptualize biological kinds. The present study explored another potential source of misconceptions: the cultural input children receive about the nature and scope of biological processes. We explored this issue by analyzing 381 children's books about nature and natural history for the presence of 39 different concepts. These concepts ranged from the anatomy or physiology of individual organisms ('organismic' concepts) to the ecological and evolutionary relationships within and among whole populations ('populational' concepts). The books were categorized by genre (fiction, nonfiction, and mixed) and divided into quartiles based on words per page, an indicator of reading level. We found that organismic concepts were represented more frequently than populational concepts across all reading levels and most genres. We also found that affectively neutral concepts (e.g., biodiversity, inheritance) were more frequently represented than affectively negative concepts (e.g., disease, extinction) across all reading levels and most genres. Taken together, these findings suggest that the evolutionary misconceptions prevalent among Western adults are reinforced, if not introduced, by early forms of cultural input. Lack of evolutionary understanding creates serious problems for social issues and public policy. This study identifies one source of misrepresentation in order to find one solution to a complex problem.


Andrew Shtulman




National Science Foundation CAREER grant to Prof. Shtulman

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