Department of Educational Psychology


Date of this Version



National Science Foundation: #0229294


Purpose: The purpose of this study was to profile natural history museum visitors’ reasoning about the evolution of seven organisms featured in Explore Evolution, an NSF funded exhibition. Seven current research studies on evolution were exhibited; each targeted different organisms: HIV, diatoms, ant/fungus, Hawaiian flies, Galapagos finches, humans/chimps, and fossilized whales. The exhibits illustrated a common set of evolutionary principles, variation, inheritance, selection, time, and adaptation, in diverse organisms.

Method: As part of the front-end evaluation, 32 museum visitors were interviewed and asked to explain evolutionary change in the seven organisms, though the term evolution was not mentioned. Based on a novel conceptual framework, responses were coded into three reasoning patterns: Informed naturalistic reasoning - one or more core evolutionary concepts; Novice naturalistic reasoning - intuitive modes of reasoning; and Creationist reasoning - supernatural explanations.

Findings: In contrast with the general public, which is 45% creationist (Gallup, 2004), only 28% of the sample exhibited creationist beliefs. None of the visitors, though, were exclusively evolutionist. Instead, visitors were mixed reasoners using more than one of these reasoning patterns in different permutations across the seven organisms. Even so, most visitors did exhibit a dominant reasoning mode: 34%, informed naturalistic reasoners, 53%, novice naturalistic reasoners, 6%, creationist reasoners. The human/chimp problem elicited the most creationist reasoning, the HIV, diatom, fly and ant problems, the most novice naturalistic reasoning, and the finch, whale, and human/chimp problems the most informed naturalistic reasoning.