Religion might not be the only reason people buy into creationism and intelligent design, psychological experiments suggest. No matter what their religious beliefs, college-educated adults frequently agree with purpose-seeking yet false explanations of natural phenomena – finches diversified in order to survive, for instance. “The very fact of belief in purpose itself might lead you to favour intelligent design,” says Deborah Kelemen, a psychologist at Boston University, who led the study Kelemen has documented the same kind of erroneous thinking – called promiscuous teleology – in young children. Seven and eight-year olds agree with teleological statements such as “Rocks are jagged so animals can scratch themselves” and “Birds exist to make nice music”. These mistakes diminish as kids take more science classes and learn causal explanations for natural events.
To see whether education erases teleological tendencies or whether they instead represent our brain’s default mode, Kelemen and colleague Evelyn Rosset presented 230 university students with various teleological statements, such as:
• Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil
• Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells
• The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesise
• Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align
Students saw a sentence flash onto a computer screen and had either 5 or 3.2 seconds to answer true or false. A third group had no time limit.
To make sure students were paying attention and could read quickly, the researchers threw in some obviously true statements: “Flowers wilt because they get dehydrated” or “People buy vacuums because they suck up dirt”, for example.