In this study we aimed to investigate whether there was any correlation between biology undergraduate students’ responses related to teleology and essentialism. We found the respective misconceptions to be quite prevalent among the participating students (research question 1), with 97% of participants agreeing with at least one misconception statement. In addition, we found that students were consistent within items, that is that they exhibited the same conception between their responses in the closed and the open part of the same item (research question 2). However, there were differences in students’ consistency within the various items. We also found that students were rather inconsistent across items, that is that most students would not agree with all teleological or all essentialist misconception statements, but only with some of them (research question 3). However, there were important differences across the various items. Finally, even though at the conceptual level teleology and essentialism relate to intentionality, like the Coley & Tanner study [18
] we found no correlation between students’ teleological and essentialist conceptions (research question 4) as is most evident in Figure 4
5.1. Comparison of Results to Those in the Coley & Tanner Study
Given the explicit connection of our study to the one reported in Coley and Tanner [18
], it is interesting to compare the findings and conclusions of the two studies in more detail (for simplicity, we hereafter refer to that study simply as CT study). A first main difference is that whereas the CT study involved both biology majors and non-biology majors, our study only involved undergraduate biology students. However, as we administered the questionnaire on the first day of the first semester, the participants in our study held the conceptions that they developed while at school and there is no possible effect of their university studies in biology, which at that point had not practically started yet. We acknowledge that there might be some differences between the participants in our study and students from other (not related to biology) departments from the same university because of the different amount of biology courses that they attended at high school. Nevertheless, any such differences would be unrelated to the ones that one would expect to find by comparing biology undergraduates and students in other disciplines that would be due to their university studies. However, below we compare the findings for the biology undergraduates who participated in our study and only the biology majors in the CT study. Overall, 97% of participants in our study agreed with at least one misconception statement, whereas this was the case for 93% of biology majors in the CT study.
Let us first look at the level of students’ agreement with the misconception statements in the two studies (Figure 1
above and Figure 2
and Figure 3
, in the CT study). The teleological statement S1
“Oxygen for animals” was endorsed by more students in our study (37%) than in the CT one (20%), whereas the teleological statement S3
“Camouflage for predators” was endorsed by more students in the CT study (80%) compared to the present one (60%). In sum, agreements with teleological statements may slightly differ between the two studies, however statement S1
“Oxygen for animals” was endorsed by relatively few students whereas statement S3
“Camouflage for predators” was endorsed by relatively many students in both studies. Regarding essentialism, statement S2
“Identical members” was endorsed by nearly 10% of students in both studies, whereas statement S6
“Stable ecological community” was endorsed by relatively less students in our study (27%) than in the CT one (35%). Therefore, and overall, there exist slight differences in students’ agreement or disagreement with the essentialist statements in the CT study and the present one. We should also note that the wording of the teleology statement S5
“Genes for all molecules” and the essentialist statement S4
“Stable characteristics” in our study were very different from the other statements used in the CT study; therefore, comparing them seems irrelevant, and this holds for the other comparisons mentioned in this article.
Besides these results, it is also interesting to look into students’ written justifications (Figure 2
and Figure 3
a,b and Figures 8 and 9 in [18
]). The number of students who agreed with the misconception statement S1 “Oxygen for animals” and also provided a written justification in teleological terms was higher in our study than the CT one. In particular, among those who agreed with S1
, those who also provided a teleological justification were 50% in our study and 23% in the CT study; among those who disagreed with S1
, those who also provided a teleological justification were 28% in our study versus 5% in the CT study. Similarly, the number of students who agreed with the misconception statement S3
“Camouflage for predators” and also provided a written justification in teleological terms was higher in our study than the CT one. In particular, among those who agreed with S3
, those who also provided a teleological justification were 73% in our study and 52% in the CT study; among those who disagreed with S3
, those who also provided a teleological justification were 27% in our study and nobody in the CT study. Differences notwithstanding, there are also some similar conclusions from both studies: first, those participants who agreed with the teleological misconception statements are more likely to justify them in teleological terms than those who disagreed with them; second the presence of teleological thinking among those agreeing with S3
is found in both studies to be stronger than the presence of teleological thinking among those agreeing with S1
Turning to essentialism, the number of students who agreed with the misconception statement S2 “Identical members” and also provided a written justification in essentialist terms was higher in the CT study than the present one. In particular, among those who agreed with S2, those who also provided an essentialist justification were 62% in the CT study and 45% in our study; among those who disagreed with S2, those who also provided an essentialist justification were 4% in the CT study and nobody in our study. In contrast, the number of students who agreed with the misconception statement S6 “Stable ecological community” and also provided a written justification in essentialist terms was higher in our study than the CT one. In particular, among those who agreed with S6, those who also provided an essentialist justification were 58% in our study and 48% in the CT study; among those who disagreed with S6, those who also provided an essentialist justification were 1% in our study and 5% in the CT study. Again, and even though numbers may slightly differ, two general conclusions can be drawn from both studies: first, participants who agreed with statement S2 are more likely to justify it in essentialist terms than those who disagreed with it; second the presence of essentialist thinking among those agreeing with S6 was found in both studies to be a bit stronger than the presence of essentialist thinking among those agreeing with S2, while the presence of essentialist thinking among those disagreeing with S2 and S6 was found very low in our study.
It is also interesting to compare students’ consistency between the closed and the open part of each item (what we have called “consistency within”, or CW, in this article) (see Table 4
above and Table 3
in the CT study). Similarly to the CT study, the correlation between the closed and the open part of teleological statement S3
“Camouflage for predators” was also found significant in our study. However, the correlation for the statement S1
“Oxygen for animals” was significant in our study, while it was not significant in the CT study. Regarding essentialism, for both statements S2
“Identical members” and S6
“Stable ecological community” there was a correlation between students’ responses to the open and closed parts in both studies. Overall, concerning students’ consistency within items, the findings in the present study and the CT study are in agreement for the three out of four compared misconception statements, with students overall exhibiting consistency in their responses to the closed and the open part of each item.
The results of the regression analysis in our study (Table 6
) and that in the CT study (Table 4
) are overall in agreement. First, in both studies, the agreement with teleological misconception statements was positively associated with the presence of a teleological intuition, but not with that of an essentialist one, in the written justifications. Also, in both studies, a positive association was found between the agreement with essentialist misconception statements and the presence of an essentialist, but not a teleological intuition, in the written justifications. Second, comparing the coefficients of the regression: (a) the strength of the association between the agreement with the teleological statements and the presence of this intuition in the justification part was slightly higher in our study (0.38) than the CT one (0.31); (b) the strength of the association between the agreement with the essentialist statements and the presence of this intuition in the justification part was much higher in our study (0.63) than in the CT one (0.32). An explanation for this difference is that our regression analysis was computed with two predictors “teleological thinking” and “essentialist thinking”, whereas in the ones in the CT study used these two plus “anthropocentric thinking”; as a result, the coefficients are higher in our case.
5.3. Conclusions from the Present Study and Implications for Undergraduate Biology Education
Overall, our findings point to some interesting conclusions. The first is that with the exception of one question to which many students provided unclear responses (S5), in most other cases there was generally a consistency between a student’s choice in the closed part and their justification in the open part of the same item. This is important to note for the reliability of our findings as in the majority of cases the response in the open part of the item stands as a confirmation that students understood what was asked in the closed part. A second important finding is that there is a variety of combinations of views held by students and thus no clear correlation between their responses, and therefore of their teleological and essentialist conceptions.
The most important implications from these findings are that undergraduate students’ teleological and essentialist conceptions must be explicitly addressed during undergraduate biology instruction, separately from each other. This means that while teaching biology content, attention should be paid not only to refrain from enhancing students’ teleological and essentialist conceptions, but also to explicitly address them and explain why they are problematic. At the same time, as teleology and essentialism are conceptually distinct, despite their common reliance on intentionality, and the respective conceptions that students hold are also non-correlated, each of these should be separately addressed.
Overall, our teleological and essentialist intuitions produce the following misconception: organisms of a particular kind/category have particular fixed characters for some intended use. This is certainly true for artifacts, but not for organisms. Artifacts have several parts appropriately designed for their intended use, which in turn is their essence. But students should learn to refrain from extending this reasoning to nature, consciously or unconsciously thinking about the parts of organisms as if they had specific intended uses. We can definitely say that an airplane has wings in order to fly; despite the differences among airplanes, they are all designed in order to fly and this constitutes part of their essence. But we cannot similarly state that a bird has wings in order to fly. In contrast, we should say that some birds fly because they have wings (among other properties). There are two main differences between birds and airplanes: birds are not designed for a purpose, and the variation among them is much higher than among airplanes—to the extent that some birds do not fly, like penguins and ostriches. These are points that must be explicitly discussed during undergraduate biology teaching, which must move away from being simply a means of transmission of content knowledge.
As no correlation was found between teleological and essentialist conceptions, one might suggest that these misconceptions must be addressed independently from one another during teaching. Let us consider another example in order to suggest a simple way in which this could be done. Imagine the comparison of sharks and dolphins in terms of two of their features: their shapes and their way of breathing. A simple way to explicitly address essentialism is to make the comparison between “dolphins” and “sharks” in plural, and not between “the dolphin” and “the shark”. In this way, reference is made to populations (i.e., dolphins, sharks—plural) and not to individuals (i.e., dolphin, shark—singular). This way of referring to populations entails that there are many different individuals. Then teachers might explicitly refer to the fact that individuals within a population are not identical, and exhibit an enormous phenotypic and genetic variation. This is the basis for evolutionary change, as under different conditions a population that has variation can evolve to different directions. This is one way in which essentialist misconceptions could be addressed.
Then, one could focus on teleological misconceptions. If one asked why dolphins and sharks have hydrodynamic shapes, one might answer that they have such shapes in order to be able to swim fast underwater. Dolphins and sharks are relatively large marine organisms, which are predators, and face similar challenges in the environment in which they live, where they need to be able to catch prey in order to survive. However, at the same time one might wonder why it is only sharks that have gills that allow them to breathe underwater, whereas dolphins have lungs and thus need to periodically get out of the water in order to breathe. In this case, one might claim that sharks have gills in order to breathe underwater, but such a claim cannot be made for dolphins. Organisms do not have all the optimal features for their survival. In some cases, the same “solutions” evolve to address the same “problem”, as is the case of their shape; in other cases, such as their respiratory system, this not the case. Therefore, teleological misconceptions can be addressed by emphasizing that some, but not all, features may exist for a purpose, which is the outcome of evolution and not design. Some features may simply exist as byproducts of evolution [42
Indeed, it has been found that activities especially developed to address students’ misconceptions about purpose and design in nature and bring them in conceptual conflict situations can have an important effect in promoting conceptual change in evolution. The activity presented in [43
] is a simple pencil–paper activity that guides students to realize that mutations producing intra-specific variation and unpredictable events resulting in differential survival depending on the environment are two important components of the evolutionary process. The results showed that the activity guided students to combine their previous knowledge and build their own understanding of how evolution proceeds. Students who were interviewed a year after the intervention and provided evolutionary explanations to all tasks considered mutations and the teaching about the role of unpredictability in evolution as the major factors that made them reject their preconceptions and replace their intuitive explanations with evolutionary ones. The activity, in particular, some of them noted, had a crucial role in making them reconsider their initial teleological conceptions [38
The main conclusion from our results is that teleological and essentialist misconceptions may persist after secondary biology teaching. Therefore, teaching about evolution could be more effective if students’ misconceptions were explicitly discussed and challenged during biology classes. This should be done in a variety of ways and contexts because, as our findings show, these misconceptions may or may not be expressed. But if this is achieved, and if students are brought to a conceptual conflict situation in which they will realize that their intuitive responses do not work and see them challenged, then a better understanding of evolution, and of biology more broadly, could be possible.