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In science and philosophy, a just-so story is an unverifiable narrative explanation for a cultural practice, a biological trait, or behavior of humans or other animals. The pejorative[1] nature of the expression is an implicit criticism that reminds the hearer of the essentially fictional and unprovable nature of such an explanation. Such tales are common in folklore and mythology (where they are known as etiological myths—see etiology).

This phrase is a reference to Rudyard Kipling's 1902 Just So Stories, containing fictional and deliberately fanciful tales for children, in which the stories pretend to explain animal characteristics, such as the origin of the spots on the leopard.[2][3] It has been used to criticize evolutionary explanations of traits that have been proposed to be adaptations, particularly in the evolution–creation debates[4] and in debates regarding research methods in sociobiology[2] and evolutionary psychology.[1]

However, the first widely acknowledged use of the phrase in the modern and pejorative sense seems to have originated in 1978 with Stephen Jay Gould, a prominent paleontologist and popular science writer.[5] Gould expressed deep skepticism as to whether evolutionary psychology could ever provide objective explanations for human behavior, even in principle; additionally, even if it were possible to do so, Gould did not think that it could be proven in a properly scientific way.[5]



Academics such as David Barash say that the term just-so story, when applied to a proposed evolutionary adaptation, is simply a derogatory term for a hypothesis. Hypotheses, by definition, require further empirical assessment, and are a part of normal science.[6] Similarly, Robert Kurzban suggested that "The goal should not be to expel stories from science, but rather to identify the stories that are also good explanations."[7] In his book The Triumph of Sociobiology, John Alcock suggested that the term just-so story as applied to proposed evolved adaptations is "one of the most successful derogatory labels ever invented".[8]

Evolutionary developmental biologyEdit

How the Snake Lost Its Legs: Curious Tales from the Frontier of Evo-Devo is a 2014 book on evolutionary developmental biology by Lewis I. Held, Jr. The title is "A factual homage to Rudyard Kipling's fanciful Just So Stories."[9][10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b David J. Buller (2005). Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. MIT Press. pp. 86–87. ISBN 978-0-262-02579-9.
  2. ^ a b Glen A. Love (2003). Practical Ecocriticism: Literature, Biology, and the Environment. University of Virginia Press. p. 71. ISBN 978-0-8139-2245-4.
  3. ^ Rudyard Kipling (1902). "How the Leopard got his Spots". Just So Stories for Little Children. Archived from the original on 2013-04-14.
  4. ^ Mark Isaak (2007). The Counter-Creationism Handbook. University of California Press. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-520-24926-4.
  5. ^ a b Anthony Gottlieb (17 September 2012). "It Ain't Necessarily So".
  6. ^ David Barash (September 17, 2012). "An Unevolved Take on Psychology". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2013-04-13.
  7. ^ Robert Kurzban (2012). "Just So Stories Are (Bad) Explanations. Functions Are Much Better Explanations". Evolutionary Psychology. Retrieved 2013-04-13.
  8. ^ John Alcock (2003). The Triumph of Sociobiology. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195143836.
  9. ^ Martin, Arnaud (2015). "Book Review | When evo-devo transcends the etiological myth". Evolution & Development. 17 (2): 170–171. doi:10.1111/ede.12118.
  10. ^ "Lewis Irving Held". Texas Tech University. Retrieved 9 February 2018.