It starts in childhood and has the potential of being reinforced throughout life.
“It” is an anthropomorphic (human) view of the world.
How students assign value to and classify living things is the focus of Are Animals “More Alive” than Plants? Animistic-Anthropocentric Construction of Life Concept by Nurettin Yorek, Mehmet Sahin and Halil Aydin of Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey.
Yorek et al. (2009) surveyed 193 ninth-grade students to determine the following:
- Which living things and concepts do students choose to associate with first in constructing the life concept?
- Which criteria (do) students use other than biological classification and which characteristics (do) they take into account when classifying living things?
- How do students describe/define the level of importance of living things?
A survey composed of five questions was developed by the researchers and distributed to individuals in the study group. Researchers also conducted interviews with high-school biology teachers and students to obtain additional clarifying information.
When asked to “write down the names of ten living things that come to your mind first” (Yorek et al., 2009), students listed “human” first in most cases. The most common living things to follow “human” were dog, cat and bird in this order (Yorek et al., 2009). Of the students who did include a plant on their list, the plant did not rank higher than 6th place (Yorek et al., 2009). Plants followed animals and based on the results of their research, Yorek et al. (2009) claim that students’ “cognitive construction of the life concept occurs mostly by associating it with animals.”
When researchers asked students to classify all living things into groups, they found themselves with an “only animals” group and a “humans, animals and plants” group (Yorek et al., 2009). In spite of what they learned in school about classification systems, students classified living things according to their own terms, using habitat type and mode of locomotion (Yorek et al., 2009) as factors. Students separated humans from the rest of nature and said humans were the “most advanced” of living things (Yorek et al., 2009). Here are two examples of how students responded to the question, “What do you think about the place of human among all the other living things?”
Human is at the top position…As if we are not revolving with the earth but the earth is revolving for us…Like all natural phenomenon are occurring for us. Since human can think and has skills, he is at the top. – Student II
Human is the most important living being who leads and develops the natural cycle…The most important distinction of human from animals and plants is his ability to think. Besides, everything in nature is created for humans. – Student VII
Even though humans were ranked at the top as being distinct from nature, most students said all living things were important and no living thing could be labeled as being “unimportant”, citing ecological relationships between living things as the reason for their opinion (Yorek et al., 2009). However when Yorek et al. (2009) studied closely what students said about “unimportant” living things, they found references to organisms not normally thought of too highly by the public, specifically insects, snakes and rats. It turns out students assigned the value of “importance” in terms of an organism’s perceived benefit (or harm) to humans (Yorek et al., 2009).
Upon review of the data, three things became clear to Yorek et al. (2009):
- Students view humans and animals as being more important than other living things.
- Regardless of what they learn about biological classification in school, students classify the natural world according to a system based on their own observations of nature.
- Students view humans as being separate from nature.
In light of their research results, Yorek et al. (2009) suggest an emphasis be placed on the “harmony” between all living things and humans in classroom curricula. They also recommend that environmental education programs take a “holistic ecocentric” (nature-centered) approach instead of an anthropomorphic approach. Yorek et al. (2009) visualize their observations in a diagram called the Animistic-Anthropocentric Construction Model of the Life Concept showing the relationship of animals, humans, plants, and other living things against the backdrop of a Life Concept. This diagram and a detailed description of the survey tool used to gather information about students’ conceptual understanding of living things can be viewed in Yorek et al. (2009). This paper is available online for free.
Yorek, Nurettin, Mehmet Sahin and Halil Aydin. 2009. Are animals “more alive” than plants? Animistic-anthropocentric construction of life concept. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education. 5(4): 369-378. Web. <www.ejmste.com/v5n4/EURASIA_v5n4_Yorek.pdf> [accessed 27 July 2011]