The impact of Darwin’s metaphor in teaching evolutionary theory

By Theresa Horstman - June 2011


Pramling, N. (2009) The role of metaphor in Darwin and the implications for teaching evolution. Science Education, 93, 535–547.

In explaining complex scientific concepts, metaphors are often used. However, the types of metaphors can have an influence on our understanding of the scientific concepts. Pramling considers the metaphors Darwin used to explain evolution and the implications of those metaphors in learning evolutionary theory. He argues that his use of particular metaphors has complicated the ways in which people understand and reason about evolution, partly because they require a complex understanding of time that is difficult to grasp. This study is on the use of metaphor in a broader context for understanding complex scientific concepts in scientific and everyday use. While conceding that metaphor can be considered essential for grasping and communicating complex ideas, the author also acknowledges that inaccurate metaphors might lead to incorrect understanding of underlying concepts. By examining excerpts of Darwin’s text, the author identifies the metaphors used that could lead to misconception of evolutionary theory. For example, using metaphors that describe certain processes in a way that transforms them from non-human processes into human actions and that suggest purposeless actions contains purpose. Darwin stated “the incessant struggle of all species to increase in numbers” (p. 541, author’s emphasis) anthropomorphizes species by assuming the intentional action. Pramling acknowledges that Darwin was aware of the risks of readers’ potential literal interpretations of the metaphors he used to explain his theory, such as the one above, but he provides a detailed account of how the trajectory of misinterpretation impacts learning. This study is useful for modeling careful analysis of scientific text for metaphoric accuracy of underlying scientific theory. It also can support informal educators who seek to engage audiences with evolutionary theory. It raises key issues surrounding how to handle metaphors to explain evolutionary theory, emphasizing on the instances in which Darwin uses metaphors to explain further and to not confuse the metaphor for theory.