You Get What You Need: An Examination of Purpose‐Based Inheritance Reasoning in Undergraduates, Preschoolers, and Biological Experts

Cognitive Science 38 (2):197-243 (2014)
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This set of seven experiments examines reasoning about the inheritance and acquisition of physical properties in preschoolers, undergraduates, and biology experts. Participants (N = 390) received adoption vignettes in which a baby animal was born to one parent but raised by a biologically unrelated parent, and they judged whether the offspring would have the same property as the birth or rearing parent. For each vignette, the animal parents had contrasting values on a physical property dimension (e.g., the birth parent had a short tail; the rearing parent had a long tail). Depending on the condition, the distinct properties had distinct functions (“function-predictive”) were associated with distinct habitats (“habitat-predictive”), or had no implications (“non-predictive”). Undergraduates' bias to view properties as inherited from the birth parent was reduced in the function- and habitat-predictive conditions. This result indicates a purpose-based view of inheritance, whereby animals can acquire properties that serve a purpose in their environment. This stance was not found in experts or preschoolers. We discuss the results in terms of how undergraduates' purpose-based inheritance reasoning develops and relates to larger-scale misconceptions about Darwinian evolutionary processes, and implications for biology education



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Susan Gelman
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor