Margaret Evans, an assistant research scientist for the Center for Human Growth and Development at the University of Michigan, published a piece in 2000 titled “Beyond Scopes: Why Creationism Is here to Stay” that discussed creationist and evolutionist beliefs in children. I’ll summarize her paper as briefly as possible.


Evolution Versus Creation Science

Evans credits the emergence of creation science with the 1961 publication of the book The Genesis Flood, in which the “Biblical dictum of a young earth was preserved and the Noachim Flood was invoked to explain the fossil record.” A world awakened to “flood geology” set out to teach its new science in the classroom.

Science in the Service of Religion

In the seventeenth-century, science was considered an attempt to understand God’s handiwork, and in this sense was completely compatible with and endorsed by religion. However, as more and more natural explanations emerged and began to “depersonalize” nature, science found itself challenging religious authority, as it often continues to do.

Creation Science: An Oxymoron?

Evans attributes the recent opposition to evolutionary theory to the 1987 US Supreme Court ruling, which declared creationism to be religious and therefore an unfit subject in science classrooms. However, this decision “only prompted creationists to bolster their credentials as scientists” in an “ultimately futile effort to use science to defend a particular ontological position.”

The Depersonalized Human Versus the Privileged Human

This section begins to uncover some of the human psychology surrounding the adherence to creationist beliefs and the rejection of evolutionary facts. Evans argues that fundamentalists can and do hold scientific ideas, even ones that contradict Biblical teachings such as heliocentrism. The problem, then, is that evolutionary theories “more deeply threaten to undermine the privileged status of God and the human soul in the universe. […] Fundamentalists clearly fear that if they abandon their literal reading of the Bible, they must also abandon moral certitude.”

Cognitive and Cultural Factors in the Emergence of Beliefs about Origins

Now that we understand a bit about the history of creationism, Evans shares the results of her experiment with elementary school children in a midwestern university town.

Children responded to questions like “How did the very first X get here?” Answers were encoded as spontaneous generation, evolution, or creationism.

The youngest group of children, age 5-7, expressed a mix of spontaneous generationist and creationist responses. The middle age group, 8-10, expressed consistent creationist beliefs. The oldest children, age 10-12, expressed predominately evolutionist beliefs.

Furthermore, the youngest children were not inclined to consider why species are the way they are. “Seemingly, they were explaining how an organism becomes manifest, but not how it got there in the first place.”

Evans theorizes that, in certain contexts, “creationist thinking is a precursor and impetus to the later development of evolutionary theory.”

She then explains that the theory of evolution is “not something that arises intuitively, but rather requires a specific knowledge structure, with attention to special kinds of data.” To explain the dominance of creationist belief, Evans says “a teleological explanation appears to be readily applied in the absence of knowledge of other causal mechanisms.”

Consistency of Belief

Evans conducted other studies in different cultural settings. She consistently found “the more children in the middle age group (eight to ten years) knew about natural history […] they more likely they were to be evolutionist” but only in early adolescence “did access to information about evolution begin to exert a differential effect.”

Artificialism Revisited

Evans has established that creationist beliefs are more intuitive than evolutionary theory, but why? “A possible explanation for the derivation of an artificialist explanation is that it arises from an intuitive ontology, specifically a naïve theory of mind.”

“Piaget theorized that once the limitations of human capacities become obvious to a child, around the early- to mid-elementary school years, a superhuman might take on the role previously ascribed to the all-knowing, all-powerful parent. The recognition of human frailty might motivate children to transfer their expectations regarding human creative capacities from the realm of an intuitive theory of mind to an alternative model, that of theistic creationism.”

Evans’ studies confirmed Piaget’s theory. Her evidence points to the fact that “when children have constructed a coherent explanation for artifact origins, they no longer take the existence and design of an entity, artifact or animate, to be a given.”


I think Evans’ studies are interesting by themselves, but consider a recent article from Scientific American discussing studies related to the phenomenon of “infantile amnesia,” the curious inability to recall events from the first three years of life.

Studies by Daniel Povinelli were conducted to discover at what age an “autobiographical sense of self” emerged. Or in William James’ words, “I am the same self I was yesterday.”


Povinelli and his colleagues developed a rather clever series of experiments where children are videotaped playing a game in the laboratory and then shown the video footage a short time later. But, and here’s the clever part, during the course of the videotaping, one of the experimenters pats the child’s head in praise and in so doing surreptitiously places a large, brightly colored sticker on their head. (This was preceded by a sticker-less “sham pat” where children were simply accustomed to being patted on the head.) Although there were a number of hypotheses tested, the critical research question was whether upon seeing the previously recorded footage, children of different ages would be more or less inclined to reach up and touch their head. If they did so, this would indicate their general understanding that their past is causally bound to their present.

In the first study to use this general paradigm, published in the journal Child Development in 1996, Povinelli and his colleagues Keli Landau and Helen Perilloux reported that none of the two-year-olds and only 25 percent of three-year-olds reached up to touch their heads when the videotape was played back to them after a three-minute delay. In contrast, 75 percent of the study’s four-year-olds did so.

Yet although they largely failed to connect the past with the present by reaching up to touch the sticker, nearly all of the three-year-olds in the study accurately identified themselves when asked who was shown in the image. Interestingly, however, the authors found that the three-year-olds were significantly more likely to refer to themselves in the third person (using their first names rather and saying that the sticker is on “his” or “her” head) than were the four-year-olds, who used first-person pronouns (“me” and “my head”) almost exclusively.

In a follow-up study published in a 1998 issue of Developmental Psychology, Povinelli and his research colleague Bridget Simon used nearly the identical procedure, but this time the study included five-year-olds and also included a seven-day comparison condition. That meant that, for half of the children, the time duration between the covert sticker-marking event and the video playback was a full week. In this study, 88 three- to five-year-old children were randomly assigned to either the brief delay (3 min) or the extended delay (7 days) condition. Similar to the results from the earlier study, less than half of the three-year-olds responded by reaching up to their heads regardless of the length of time that separated the two events. In contrast, nearly all of the four- and five-year-olds in the brief condition did so, and furthermore their same-age peers in the extreme delay condition did not. “That is,” the authors write regarding the delayed condition findings, “as age increased, the number of children who reached up tended to decrease…. Four- and especially five-year-olds displayed a clear understanding that although briefly delayed visual feedback is causally relevant to transient aspects of the present self, extremely delayed feedback is not.”


My question, then, is could those children in Evans’ youngest age group who expressed spontaneous generation and creationist origins have simply lacked a fully-developed “autobiographical self”? This seems a likely explanation, at least in part. Children who cannot connect their present selves upon seeing images of their past selves might very well assume existence is a product of “something from nothing”.

Creationism, the essential idea that humankind has always been the way it is now, could similarly be described as a sort of “infantile amnesia”, a failure to identify an autobiographical connection to an ancestor species.

Views: 53

Comment by Nick on April 28, 2009 at 11:54am
I had solved the mystery of infantile amnesia. Everything worked out and accounted for, then I turned three.
Comment by Pam on April 28, 2009 at 12:35pm
lol denuvian, how very Wordsworthian.
Comment by Johnny on April 28, 2009 at 2:29pm
Yet although they largely failed to connect the past with the present by reaching up to touch the sticker, nearly all of the three-year-olds in the study accurately identified themselves when asked who was shown in the image. Interestingly, however, the authors found that the three-year-olds were significantly more likely to refer to themselves in the third person (using their first names rather and saying that the sticker is on “his” or “her” head) than were the four-year-olds, who used first-person pronouns (“me” and “my head”) almost exclusively.

Not really a psychological or scientific observation; but an observation from my personal experience...

Kids (of this age) often struggle with "me" "you" and "I" (and sometimes "us" and "we"). In my limited observation I had seen this; although I recognized it as a struggle for kids of that age, and had not really analyzed it.

Further understanding came when I realized it had to do with name or title association. These words are inconsistent titles from their perspective, so they are confusing to use. "Me" does seem to be the first one most kids work out; but it seems common for kids to refer to themselves in the third person when seeing themselves in video or pictures.

This is related to how kids think their father's name is "Daddy" and how confused they can get when first exposed to other kids who also call their father "Daddy." Watching three-year-olds argue who "Daddy" is can be hilarious.
Comment by Pam on April 28, 2009 at 3:05pm
@ Johnny. I've not had much experience with children, but the "Daddy scenario" sounds hilarious. XD

The first vs third person pronouns could be more related to language acquisition than self-identity, but I don't know. (I'm certainly not a psychologist.) The mention of the pronouns seemed to be included as an afterthought anyway, but it is interesting that they have trouble with them.
Comment by Stacy B on April 28, 2009 at 5:28pm
Your hypothesis certainly makes sense. Of course kids haven't quite figured the world out yet, especially the younger ages. Though I'm thinking that while it could be a lack of equating yourself with a past, if could just as easily be (for children) basing your understanding of the world on your very limited experience - i.e. that people make things. If all you know about is humans making things, then you'll believe that a being, much like humans but with super powers, made humans. The more information children are given about the world, the less they attribute to a human-like super-powered being - the more they can externalize.

Perhaps Creationists start out in this state (by whatever mechanism) and are encouraged to continue believing it by their religious culture. Certainly young children could simply lack the capacity to associate with non-human ancestors, but at some point they will gain that ability and learn about non-God oriented explanations for things. It's only specific reinforcement of the creator idea that perpetuates belief in Creationism past late childhood.

I'm not really disagreeing with you, it probably is a part of the mechanism for early belief in a creator, but I think the sheer fact of not being exposed to anything else plays a bigger role. I don't think you were extending the effect into adulthood, but it certainly makes you wonder how people psychologically maintain their belief in a creator after their early childhood deficiencies are corrected.


You need to be a member of Think Atheist to add comments!

Join Think Atheist

© 2022   Created by Rebel.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service