Just-so Story

In science and philosophy, a just-so story, also called an ad hoc fallacy, is an unverifiable and unfalsifiable narrative explanation for a cultural practice, a biological trait, or behavior of humans or other animals. The pejorative 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 ‘origin’ or ‘etiological’ myths).

Published in 1902, Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories,’ is a collection of 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.

Evolutionary explanations of traits that have been proposed to be adaptations, particularly in the evolution–creation debates and in debates regarding research methods in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have been criticized as ‘just-so stories.’ However, academics such as David Barash state 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. Similarly, evolutionary psychologist 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.’ In his book ‘The Triumph of Sociobiology,’ behavioral ecologist John Alcock suggested the the term ‘just-so story’ as applied to proposed evolved adaptations is ‘one of the most successful derogatory labels ever invented.’

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