Daily Archives: September 23, 2009

Why Are Rocks Pointy?

Pointy rocks at Garden of Gods - mind your bum! (photo Ryan Schwartz)Anyone with a young child in the back of the car on a long journey will be familiar with the incessant questions that they can ask. Sometimes it may just be, “Are we there yet?” but for many, a long road trip can be an ideal opportunity for intellectual torture. My youngest could grind you down into submission after a couple of minutes.. “Why are trees green and not blue? How heavy are clouds and why do they float if they weigh something?” On and on and on and on….after a while you give up the will… “BECAUSE THAT’S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE!!!!”

Don’t get me wrong. After all, I am a scientist who studies children but it is quite clear that children seemed compelled to ask questions and find solutions. Sometimes it can get exasperating. “Because that’s just the way they are” is not a satisfactory answer and if you get suckered into starting to give a causal chain of reasoning such as, “Well, trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to convert sunlight into energy,” well you know what happens next… On and on and on and on

When we don’t give them answers, children generate their own explanations and from their perspective, everything is the way it is for some purpose. Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them. Trees have leaves to provide shade. This is called teleology – giving a functional reason for things that just happen to be the way they are for non-purposeful reasons. In the natural world there are all manner of things that appear complex and designed for a purpose. But that’s not the way the natural world works. It has no purpose and that’s one reason people find it so difficult to understand evolution through natural selection. Adopting the teleological stance that things have been designed purposefully is the intuitive way to think about the world and that’s one reason why children may be so inclined to creationist stories. Most religions (I don’t know if all) have some creationist account about origins usually in the form of God.

This is the point that my colleague Deb Kelemen at Boston University has made in her research. In fact, she calls it “promiscuous teleology” to reflect the pervasive nature of this way of thinking. You might think that once children are provided with non-teleological explanations than education can eradicate these naïve notions. However, in a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal “Cognition” she reports how science-educated adults can revert back to giving teleological explanations when forced to answer questions under time pressure. Is this simply the easiest answer to give? It may well be but my hunch that I give in my book is that we never truly abandon childhood ways of interpreting the world and that we have to work to ignore them. And that takes effort which is why putting someone in the spotlight can get them to think like a child again.

BTW I am also blogging over at t5m. So drop over there if you have a spare moment.

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