What Rick Perry and 10-Year-Olds Have in Common

by Simon van Zuylen-Wood | August 19, 2011

Numerous are the perils of leaving Texas, Rick Perry is quickly discovering. For instance: pushy New England mothers who try to embarrass you. On Thursday, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, one woman fed her young son ‘gotcha’ questions to ask the whistle-stopping Perry, like, “How old do you think the earth is?” Perry ended up making headlines with one of his responses: “In Texas we teach both creationism and evolution, because I figure you’re smart enough to figure out which one’s right.” We don’t need a Study post to figure out that Texas public schools do not actually preach Genesis, a fact which may distress some parents under the same delusion as Perry. But we did dig up an interesting study that might make them feel better: By and large, while that smug New Hampshire mom may have convinced her own kid, most pre-teens don’t believe in evolution, even if their parents do.

According to a 2001 study in Cognitive Psychology, until the age of 11, even children from non-fundamentalist communities rarely believe in evolution, regardless of their family’s beliefs. In the study sample, kids from age 5 to 7 were equally likely to believe in the theories of “spontaneous generation” as they were biblical creationism. Kids from ages 8 to 10, for their part, overwhelmingly ditched spontaneous generation, but in favor of creationism, not evolution. Only at the age of 11 did kids start adhering to evolution. So why do those younger kids naturally veer away from evolution?

It’s not because they’re devout Christians, but because the theory is harder for them to understand. For the youngest children studied, the theory that everything just sort of happened—spontaneous generation—is the most intuitive. As the study notes, those kids’ understanding of biology is limited to birth and growth, but not why or how they happen. As children get older, they begin to develop a curiosity about “what purpose is served by their existence.” And that’s why creationism becomes attractive—it provides a design and a designer. Only once they get older do children begin to understand what their parents and teachers may be telling them about evolution. Of course, some kids, as we were reminded yesterday, prefer not to grow up.

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