How personal epistemologies and social representations help us understand how people make sense of the origin of their species

People have long been fascinated by their own origins, for which various cultures have offered a wide range of explanations during history. Next, we will discuss Finns’ understandings of the origin of human beings and what role personal epistemologies and social representations have in these understandings. Evolution theory has a strong position in Finland as an explanation of human origins. It is taught in schools as part of life sciences. Some of its elements are well rooted in people’s minds, as manifested in everyday jokes about the cousins in zoos, and in the well-known dialogue in Väinö Linna’s (1954/2015) seminal novel Unknown Soldiers, in which soldiers chat, reflect, and joke about human prehistory and the place of fish in it. The creation story as an explanation of the origin of human beings has an even longer history than the theory of evolution. Also, it still has a significant place in the worldview of the majority of the population. The creation story of human history, however, can be interpreted in quite different ways. For example, Niiniluoto (1984) has argued that even educated people at the end of the 19th century could literally rely on the creation story as a prehistory of humankind, but today, according to the position prevailing within the Lutheran Church, Finland’s majority church, the story of creation must be understood symbolically. However, there is still more variety in the standpoints among the population, as becomes evident below.

At the practical level, science and religion are intertwined in many ways. For example, in Finland, the Lutheran priests receive their education in theological faculties, even though the church ordains the priests. The inauguration programme for the academic year of the largest university in Finland continues to include a worship service. In schools, ethics as an alternative to religion is still an exception to the mainstream. Learning outcomes in religion are rated as in any other school subject. Many Finns get married and buried according to church ceremonies, and relatives and friends not belonging to church customarily participate in these events.

One dilemma Kitchener and King dealt with was the question of human origins. It was presented to Finnish interviewees as a part of a broader project (Pirttilä-Backman, 1993). The dilemma that also covers ontological assumptions says:

Many religions of the world have creation stories. These stories suggest that a divine being created the earth and its people. Scientists claim, however, that people evolved from lower animal forms (some of which were similar to apes) into the human forms we know today.

(King & Kitchener, 1994, p. 260)

In Finland, 142 people responded to all four of Kitchener’s and King’s dilemmas (Pirttila-Backman, 1993). The respondents represented different educational levels and fields and included both students halfway through their studies and graduates from the same educational institutions ten years earlier, as well as people with little specialised education.

The interview protocol for each dilemma received three scores according to Kitchener’s and King’s scoring manual3, reflecting the development stages manifested in the interviews (see Table 1 for the stage descriptions). For example, if during the interview, views and justifications reflecting only stage 3 were presented, the scorer recorded 333. On the other hand, if the majority of the arguments corresponded to stage 6, but there were also clear indications of stage 5 and some of stage 4, a score of 654 was assigned. Next, an average of each dilemma was calculated for each interviewee, after which a personal stage average was formed by calculating the average of all the dilemmas, except the one concerning human origins. The distribution of these personal averages based on three dilemmas are shown in Table 4.2.

Table 4.2 shows that the most common development stage average was around four, while the next typical averages were five and three. The highest stages were rather exceptional. This has also been the case in studies conducted in the US, with the stage averages varying from 3.6 among high school students to 5.3 among doctoral students (King, Kitchener, & Wood, 1994).

In the dilemma of human pre-history, evolution was chosen by 46% of women, and 65% of men. Creation was selected by 20% of women and 12.5% of men, while 13% of women and 12.5% of men chose both standpoints. For the rest, 21% of women and 10% of men did not take a stand on this dilemma.

TABLE 4.2 The distribution of interviewees’ personal stage averages of three dilemmas (N = 142)

Stage mean of three dilemmas

Percentage of respondents

less than 3.49










Source. Pirttilä-Backman & Hakanen, 1994

Although there was some degree of variation in percentages, the difference between the genders in the basic standpoints was not statistically significant.

The interviewees with the highest stage scores had all chosen the theory of evolution. A considerable proportion of the interviewees who had low stage scores had also come to this solution. Those who had selected evolution had a clearly larger deviation in the mean stage scores than other groups. Looking at group-wise scores, the highest mean stage score (4.7) was in the group that had selected both evolution and creation. The mean score for those who had selected evolution was 4.3 and for those who had selected creation it was 3.8. The differences in group-wise mean stage scores proved statistically significant between those who had selected both standpoints and those who had selected creation only; there were no significant differences between the other groups.

Those who chose evolution justified their view by arguing that there is evidence, knowledge, and proof of evolution. According to the justifications of the statements and their meanings, these interviewees could still be divided into two subgroups. In the first of these, the proof of evolutionary theory was what was known at the moment, while other topics were hardly taken up. This subgroup was categorised as “There is evidence of evolution, but not about the other option.” In the second subgroup, “I’m so realistic that I have never believed in the supernatural,” evidence and facts were considered to be the sole property of reality and the basis for the solutions, because supernatural reality was regarded as non-existent.

Also, those who chose creation as their only standpoint expressed their choice clearly. They could be divided into the following four subgroups on the basis of their main justifications: 1) I believe; 2) This is what I learnt, and this is how it may he; 3) But where did everything begin from?; 4) But we are not monkeys.

Those who chose both standpoints considered that there is no contradiction between evolution and creation. The view was clarified in four different ways that can be summarised as follows: 1) It is the same thing expressed in different ways; 2) Both can he true because neither of them can be said to be wrong; 3) Evolution is certain hut religion also has its place; and 4) Someone created lower forms of animals, which then developed into higher animal forms.

Those who did not take any stand formed the fourth major class. Each interview had been started by asking for the standpoint. If the interviewee did not choose either of the options presented, later in the interview s/he was asked, inter alia, why the interviewee could not or was not willing to take a stand and whether s/he could at some point and on some premises choose a standpoint. Therefore, in these interviews, the interviewees presented different views on the origin of human beings. Two clear subgroups emerged from this group: 1) Tins is unknown; and 2) I have not yet solved this for myself. For more details of the qualitative analysis and results, see Pirttila-Backman and Hakanen (1994).

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