Jonah Lehrer discusses the new Gallup poll numbers on the (non)acceptance of evolutionary theory versus creationist beliefs in his New Yorker blog post “Why We Don’t Believe in Science.” He cites a study by Andrew Shtulman in Cognition that finds our cognitive hardware (our brains) are probably selected to have some “naive intuitions about the world” & reject more complex explanations (our brains like Occam’s razor?), even if the former are wrong & the latter are right.
An fMRI study by Kevin Dunbar & colleagues found that undergraduates without a physics background, in watching a recreation of an experiment of different size metal balls falling, rejected Galileo’s correct explanation (but counter to naive intuition) of the physics involved in favor of the incorrect Aristotelian view AND displayed what neuroscientists call the “oh shit!” circuit in the brain (actually, I cannot find the study Lehrer is referring to but find one in which non-physics students hold naive notions similar to medieval thinkers, while physics students interpret the results thru a Newtonian lens, to similar effect though). Physics students, on the other hand, agreed with the correct Galileo assessment but displayed activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or so-called “suppressing unwanted representations” circuit.
Though not addressed in Lehrer’s post, this is consistent with the by-product model for the evolution of religion promoted by Justin Barrett, Pascal Boyer, & others. They suggest that resolving real-time incongruencies in life with minimally counterintuitive concepts like spirits & supernatural powers requires less of an intuitive leap than more complicated but correct explanations–i.e., that religion didn’t evolve for an adaptive purpose but developed out of this naive intuition with secondary benefits.