Students' "teleological misconceptions" in evolution education: Why the underlying design stance, not teleology per se, is the problem

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Teleology, explaining the existence of a feature on the basis of what it does, is usually considered as an obstacle or misconception in evolution education. Researchers often use the adjective "teleological" to refer to students' misconceptions about purpose and design in nature. However, this can be misleading. In this essay, I explain that teleology is an inherent feature of explanations based on natural selection and that, therefore, teleological explanations are not inherently wrong. The problem we might rather address in evolution education is not teleology per se but the underlying "design stance". With this I do not refer to creationism/intelligent design, and to the inference to a creator from the observation of the apparent design in nature (often described as the argument from design). Rather, the design stance refers to the intuitive perception of design in nature in the first place, which seems to be prevalent and independent from religiosity in young ages. What matters in evolution education is not whether an explanation is teleological but rather the underlying consequence etiology: Whether a trait whose presence is explained in teleological terms exists because of its selection for its positive consequences for its bearers, or because it was intentionally designed, or simply needed, for this purpose. In the former case, the respective teleological explanation is scientifically legitimate, whereas in the latter case it is not. What then should be investigated in evolution education is not whether students provide teleological explanations, but which consequence etiologies these explanations rely upon. Addressing the design stance underlying students' teleological explanations could be a main aim of evolution education.




Kampourakis, K. (2020, January 9). Students’ “teleological misconceptions” in evolution education: Why the underlying design stance, not teleology per se, is the problem. Evolution: Education and Outreach. BioMed Central Ltd.

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