Presently I’m attending a small symposium on “Belief and Reason” at Trinity College, Cambridge, being sponsored by the Perrott-Warrick Fund. It’s a rather intimate affair with mostly cognitive scientists discussing the latest research and theory on everything from paranormal beliefs to free will to the placebo effect. One of the standout talks Monday was by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, who gave a presentation titled “Is Religion Natural?” He focused on the puzzling case of creationist beliefs.

As Bloom pointed out, many people believe that one’s acceptance of evolutionary theory boils down to whether that person was indoctrinated as a child by religious parents or educated by science-minded teachers. But it's not that simple. By her own accounts, even Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind from nineteen months of age*, spontaneously pondered, “Who made the sky, the sea, everything?” prior to being taught how to communicate. As a retrospective anecdote, the example should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they say—but if true, it’s quite something, since her linguistic isolation meant that Keller hadn’t a culturally transmitted concept of God to revert to but nevertheless intuited ‘someone’ had created the world.

For the past decade, University of Michigan psychologist Margaret Evans has been investigating why creationist thinking comes more easily to the human mind than does evolutionary thinking. “Persistence [of creationist beliefs] is not simply the result of fundamentalist politics and socialization,” writes Evans. “Rather, these forces themselves depend on certain propensities of the human mind.” According to Evans, the preponderance of creationist beliefs—as well as their recalcitrance in the face of logical science—is due in large part to the way our cognitive systems have (ironically enough) evolved.

As a scientist, Evans isn't so much interested in the metaphysical question of ultimate origins, but rather in the cognitive factors that influence and constrain our ability to think and reason about this existential problem. In her very important research, she's been mapping out how children’s reasoning about origins are influenced by particular developmental experiences, such as being raised by a professor of evolutionary biology versus a pastor at the local church. Or, more commonly, just by regular parents.

Evans has discovered that regardless of their parents’ beliefs or whether they attend religious or secular school, when asked where the first member of a particular animal species came from (say, a fox or a turtle), 5- to 7-year-old children give either spontaneous generationist (e.g., “it got born there”) or creationist (e.g., “God made it”) responses. By 8-10 years of age, however, children from both secular and religious backgrounds give exclusively creationist answers. Typically these answers are manifest as “God made it,” but often “Nature” is personified, seen as a deliberate agent that intentionally made the animal. It’s only among the oldest children she’s studied, the 10-12-year-olds, that Evans uncovers an effect of developmental experience, with children of evolutionary-minded parents giving evolutionary responses and those of evangelical parents giving creationist answers to the question.

In one of her writings, subtitled “Why Creationism is Here to Stay,” Evans states that “the theory of evolution is not something that arises intuitively, but rather requires a specific knowledge structure.” In other words, thinking like an evolutionist is hard work because, ironically, it works against the grain of evolved human psychology. Evolutionists will probably never outnumber creationists, Evans believes, since the latter has a paradoxical ally in the way natural selection has lent itself to our species’ ability to reason about its own origins.

According to Evans and other psychologists, including Deborah Kelemen from Boston University, there’s a very specific cognitive glitch that invades our rationalist thought whenever we’re pondering the subject of life’s origins, something those who do research in this area refer to as “teleo-functional thinking” (reasoning about the functional purpose of an entity or object in question). When scratching our heads over an artifact—with the end product before us, asking ourselves how it came to be—these scientists find that we tend to start off by trying to deduce what it’s meant for. If you’ve ever puzzled over an ambiguous gadget at the Sharper Image or some archaic device at the antique store or museum, asking yourself, “I wonder what that’s supposed to be for?” this is an example of your teleo-functional reasoning in action. Many times the various physical or architectural features of the object, what are called its “affordances,” give us clues as to its inherent purpose, or in other words what the designer of the object had in mind when creating it. An object with a handle, for instance, is meant for holding, while one with a hook is meant for hooking, and so on, and we interact with the object accordingly.

One thing you may also have noticed is that when we can’t figure out the purpose of something to our satisfaction, it can be very, very frustrating. As a teenager, I once made the strangest archeological find in the trunk of a hundred-year-old shagbark hickory tree that grew in the backyard of my family’s house in Ohio. Since it was nearly dead anyway and, furthermore, in a state of suspended decline in the direction of our roof, my father decided to have the tree felled. Its remains were then butchered into firewood and stacked neatly on our lawn. It was in this stack of wood, while sorting for kindling one winter, that I discovered something curious among the tree’s ruins, a tool of some sort—two conjoining iron segments, one resembling an anvil with an opening at its rounded end for the pivot joint of the other to sit in. It had come to be wedged into the tree when the land was still owned by a hardworking farmer rather than a housing developer, and a thick hide of bark and lignum had consumed it in the time since.

I never did find out what that tool was supposed to be for, much less how it wound up in the belly of an old hickory tree. But why is it so irritating for me, to this day, to be deprived of this answer? It could be that, as University of California at Berkeley psychologist Alison Gopnik suggests, this object and its elusive purpose serves as something of a sexual tease for me, only it’s not walking in front of me semi-naked and giving me that come hither look insomuch as it’s wearing the cognitive chastity belt of a brainteaser.

Gopnik argues that human beings have evolved an “innate explanatory drive” that motivates us to seek explanations similar to the way we’re motivated to achieve sexual climax. That is to say, for the sheer thrill and phenomenological bliss of it. Just as those few seconds in bed or on top of the washing machine feel naturally grand and put a smile on your face, so too does lighting upon that fleeting eureka moment in solving a mind-tickling problem leave you glowing. (OK, so maybe doing crosswords or Sudoku isn’t going to have you exactly biting your bottom lip and moaning in ecstasy, but you get the gist of Gopnik’s analogy.)

Physiologically speaking, says Gopnik, your brain is rigged up to chase these short-lived moments of pleasure: orgasm in the one instance because sex is nature’s feel-good ruse to get your genes out there, and explanation in the other because knowing why things work the way they do enables you to learn and therefore to make more adaptive responses in the future. The thing is, Gopnik points out, your explanation doesn’t actually need to be correct to get that burst of pleasure; you’ve just got to believe you’ve solved the problem. In any event, unless I ever spend a Sunday afternoon googling images from a search of “agrarian tool history,” then I’m not going to get much satisfaction whenever I think about my 19th-century hickory-encrusted artifact.

One important point made by researchers working in this area is that teleo-functional reasoning invokes our social cognition because it has us guessing what the person who’d originally conceptualized the object intended it to be used for. “Oh I see,” we’ll say, rotating some mysterious contraption in our hands and finally recognizing some hidden function for one if its doohickeys or thingamajigs, “how clever.” Of course for artifacts, or for that matter anything intentionally manmade, this type of thinking makes sense. People are indeed very clever at designing new objects that have a functional purpose. In fact one could even say we’re ingenious at devising solutions to problems this way. Just over the past few decades, more than 600 original patents have been awarded for bidets and bidet-related accessories and 400 for products meant to improve your croissant-baking skills. But when applied to human origins, Darwin’s mindless machine of natural selection obviates the need for an intelligent designer. Somebody needs to explain this to Rick WarrenStat!

As far as I know, the type of psychological research and theories described above haven’t been given much consideration in the endless ‘intelligent design’ debates eating up the clock at many lively school board meetings. But since it shows how our minds give the Book of Genesis a generous (and rather unfair) handicap in science education dialogue, it may be wise to table such findings for discussion.

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed or friend Dr. Bering onFacebook and never miss an installment again.

*Correction (3/20/09): When this story was originally posted, it incorrectly stated that Helen Keller was born deaf and blind.