October 13, 2010

Babies, balls and creationists

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org A recently published study in PNAS explores how small babies relate order and disorder, or entropy, to the different types of things that may cause them. Amazingly, babies as small as 12 months old show some understanding of the difference between the deliberate and goal-directed "agents" that can cause order, such as a person, and those randomly acting inanimate objects that cannot, such as a bouncing ball. This means that we have some sort of general understanding that the way agents act on the world is completely different from the way inanimate objects act on the world from a very early age. Long before we're able to articulate why we would believe such a thing. Read more about the experiments from this summary at Ars Technica: Toddlers recognize entropy from messy bedrooms.

The extraordinary thing here is that the authors of the study don't limit themselves to stating this fact regarding the cognitive development of human beings, but weave in several references to creationism in the article.

Although the Second Law of Thermodynamics is often understood as stating that isolated systems tend to move from order to disorder in a manner that increases entropy, we frequently encounter cases where an external entity can take a system from relative disorder to order. Most of the time, the entity is an “agent,” meaning a goal-directed actor, and very often that agent is thought of as having intentions to bring order to the system...

The second law of thermodynamics is often fallaciously used by creationists as an argument against evolution, based exactly on the temptation to think of evolution as a process that "wants to bring order to the system". This inability of imagining evolutionary processes as completely devoid or intentions or goals underlies many misconceptions about evolution.

As adults, however, we do not typically see inanimate objects as capable of having such effects. It is highly unlikely that a rolling ball or falling stone could increase the orderliness of a system.

Or indeed a tornado in a junkyard, again a creationist fallacy.

We would be surprised to see such an event because we normally assume that order arises from the actions of agents, not inanimate objects. <...> Thus, as adults, we appreciate that one major division in the world of causal entities is between those that are generally capable of “reversing local entropy” and those that are not.

Having set the stage, the authors deliver their crushing blow.

Although previous work has established that adults, infants, and even nonhuman primates are often remarkably accurate at identifying appropriate causal agents, there also appear to be systematic ways in which children and adults are prone to agentic or teleological explanations. For example, 4-y-old children will report that lakes are “for swimming,” or when asked about the origins of animals and people, tend to endorse explanations that include an intentional creator. In addition, cross-cultural work finds striking commonalities in the prevalence of “intelligent design” arguments among children and adults.

One explanation for these types of inferences is that, in our everyday experiences, ordered phenomena do tend to result only from other agents. The correlation is simply too strong and salient to ignore. Moreover, it is well known that adults and children often have a difficult time reasoning about randomness and its effects. Thus, in certain situations, we may overextend a causal framework that includes strong connections between agents and order to erroneously see some ordered patterns as intentionally created by an agent, even when the ordered pattern is actually created by an unintentional, inanimate process.

So the common fallacy of imagining evolution as a directed process is probably a reflection of how we otherwise cognize about agents and their actions on the world. In turn this makes some of us imagine that there must be an agent behind it. Evolution appears as though it is generating order, or "reversing entropy", therefore it is impossible or it must be caused by an intelligent actor with set goals, depending of which particular flavor of creationism/intelligent design you find most appealing. It might be the reason why intelligent design is so tempting to some.

The authors of this study have shown that these cognitive processes, that for the most part lead us to make correct assumptions but that can also cause us to "over-interpret" apparent order, arise very early in our development, before many other cognitive abilities. This can be used as an argument for two statements: That these cognitive processes are absolutely central to our way of relating to the world, which makes them difficult to shake. And that the type of arguments used by intelligent design proponents, who presumably are mostly adults, are based on pretty naïve assumptions made by children and not on the type of reasoning adults use. It also pinpoints something many evolutionary biologists have been saying for a while; that thinking correctly about evolution is actually quite difficult and counterintuitive.

Newman, G., Keil, F., Kuhlmeier, V., & Wynn, K. (2010). Early understandings of the link between agents and order Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (40), 17140-17145 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914056107

PS: Tack Anders och Görel för tipset!


  1. Awesome. Very interesting.

  2. "...or when asked about the origins of animals and people, tend to endorse explanations that include an intentional creator"

    But is this spontaneous or are 4 year-olds quite capable of internalising this explanation that is so common in our societies?

    I hear what this is saying, but I don't perceive any "crushing blows." People are unable to see complexity (localised decrease in entropy?) arising except through purposeful agents. This is something every person trying to understand creationists debates at some point.

    And it's often been spoken about that people find evolution difficult to understand because they assume it must be a purposeful force.

    We must find good ways to show people that unconscious, undirected processes can lead to amazing complexity. The paper sounds very interesting, but we've known this stuff for quite a while.

  3. I meant "a crushing blow" in the text, not necessarily in their findings. For an article that superficially has nothing to do with the evolution/creationism debate, I think it's cool how they build up their arguments and throw in a jab at the creationists in the end.

    Of course these arguments are not new, but I don't agree that we've known this stuff for quite a while. The real evidence for these ideas is not that old, in my opinion, although the ideas themselves might be. We might have suspected this stuff for quite a while, but I would be more restrictive with the word known. And yes I know that it's often been spoken about how people find evolution difficult to understand. That's why I said precisely that when I wrote "It also pinpoints something many evolutionary biologists have been saying for a while..."

    So I didn't mean to say this study alone solves the whole issue. The first paragraphs I have quoted come from the introduction of the article, which summarizes the theoretical background. I don't detail the additions that this specific study makes until the very last paragraph.

    From their results it does seem as though teleological explanations are an innate property of our cognition, and not a result of cultural influence, since children that are only 12 months old react to the improbable scenario of an inanimate force creating order.