Unlike some pivotal ideas in the history of science, the basic notion of natural selection is remarkably simple and so one might expect most students to easily grasp the basic principles of the Darwinian theory; yet many students nevertheless have difficulty understanding Darwinian evolution. We suggest that misconceptions about natural selection arise from mistaken categorization. Our thesis for explaining students’ failure to understand this concept or evolution in general is not that they necessarily fail to understand individual Darwinian principles; rather, they often fail to understand the ontological features of equilibration processes, of which evolution is one instance. They thus attribute the evolutionary process in general, and natural selection in particular, with event-like properties. For example, naive students appear to focus on the idea of survival of the fittest, but embed this idea within an event ontology that involves actors struggling to overcome obstacles and achieve goals. Results showed that most naive subjects’ evolutionary explanations reflected an event ontology. Furthermore, event ontology attributes were positively correlated with non-Darwinian explanations; by contrast, equilibration attributes, when present, were positively correlated with key Darwinian principles. These findings suggest that students would greatly benefit from science instruction that emphasized the underlying ontology of modern evolutionary theory.
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