The concept of natural selection in evolution is a complicated one that many people struggle to understand. Highschool students, university undergraduates, and even instructors who teach evolution all struggle with the key elements of this theory (e.g., Nehm et al., 2009). A major misconception is that changes in adaptive traits occur at the individual level and within a single lifespan, rather than at the population level and across many generations. An example of this misunderstanding is the idea that giraffes have long necks because individual animals stretched to reach leaves on high branches. This is in contrast to the fact that giraffes possessing longer necks as a function of normal variability were more likely to survive and reproduce compared to those with shorter necks (therefore propagating the trait of longer necks). A recent study investigated whether this complicated concept could be taught to young children using a fictional storybook, providing a demonstration of the potential for facts to be learned from fiction (Kelemen et al., 2014). Young children aged 5 to 6 (N = 28) and older children aged 7 to 8 (N = 33) were read a custom-made storybook describing the fundamental concepts of natural selection with respect to a fictional animal, the pilosa. Children of both ages not only demonstrated better understanding of natural selection immediately after being read the book, they were also able to generalize this understanding to another animal, an important demonstration of knowledge transfer. Most impressive, this improvement in understanding was also evident 3 months later during a follow-up test. A second study replicated these findings in a second sample, using a slightly different storybook that communicated an even more nuanced conception of natural selection. The question of whether one can learn fact from fiction has often been debated in both philosophy and psychology, and this study provides important evidence that even at young ages children can acquire complex concepts through exposure to fiction and generalize it appropriately to the real world.
Kelemen, D., Emmons, N. A., Seston Schillaci, R., & Ganea, P. A. (2014). Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797613516009
Nehm, R. H., Kim, S. Y., & Sheppard, K. (2009). Academic preparation
in biology and advocacy for teaching evolution: Biology versus non-biology teachers. Scientific Education, 93, 1122–1146.