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The Dilemma of Just-So Stories in Scientific Research

Just-so stories as Lamarckian stories of origins

‘Just-so stories’ is the title of a 1902 collection by Rudyard Kipling that the British writer created to tell his firstborn daughter Effie at bedtime. The reason for their name is that ‘[t]hey had to be told just so; or Effie would wake up and put back the missing sentence’ (Kipling, 1998 [1902]: 1). As Daniel Karlin (2015) notes, these are ‘stories of origins […] that answer the kinds of questions that children ask, in ways that satisfy their taste for primitive and poetic justice.’ They are mostly stories about the animal world and how it came to be so, about ‘how the whale got his throat’ and ‘how the camel got his hump’ and ‘how the rhinoceros got his skin’ to highlight but a few.

But these are also exquisitely Lamarckian stories of origins in the sense that attributes of an organism that are modified after its birth can be transmitted genetically to its offspring. So, in Kipling’s stories, whales only eat plankton because a shrewd mariner built a grate with the remnants of its raft in a whale’s throat to avoid being swallowed; and the elephant’s trunk is elongated as a consequence of a tug-of-war play between a piglike animal and an alligator that had the former by its snout (see also Fitch, 2012: 157-8). Surely, no one today would believe that a man-made grate in a whale’s throat would be transmitted to its children; nor would anyone entertain the thought that one’s child would inherit their parent’s scars and bruises.

Figure 1: Rudyard Kipling's illustration for “The Elephant's Child” from Just So Stories (1902). Source: Encyclopaedia Britannica

Rather, educational curricula today often present Darwin’s natural selection as the chief evolutionary force. According to this evolutionary theory, gene mutations have consequences for individuals, who either thrive or die out because of their genetics. Evolution is the result of the natural selection of the groups that are ‘fittest’ in the changing environment. (It is however important to emphasise that Darwin was unaware of the role of genetics in evolution. His ‘descent with modification,’ as he dubbed evolution, was confined to the development of the so-called phenotypes, which concern observable traits, such as wings, shells, or antlers for example, and which are in turn expressions of the genotype, i.e. the organism’s genetic information.)

Because of the affinity with the natural world and the misguided Lamarckian imprint Kipling’s stories had, the expression ‘just-so stories’ was easily co-opted by evolutionary biologists who wanted to highlight a similarly misguided kind of evolutionary hypotheses that may sound plausible but which ‘are less than rigorously supported by solid evidence’ (Gould, 1978: 530). Even today, major dictionaries define ‘just-so stories’ in much the same vein: ‘a speculative story or explanation of doubtful or unprovable validity that is put forward to account for the origin of something (such as a biological trait) when no verifiable explanation is known’ (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

Figure 2: Rudyard Kipling's illustration of how the whale got his throat. Source: Wikimedia

The debate around just-so stories in evolutionary biology

In evolutionary biology, the term ‘just-so story’ was first used as a response to those scientists that purported that natural selection necessarily leads to adaptation, whereby a particular trait of an organism evolves to perform a defined function. In other words, ‘[e]volutionary adaptations are traits that exist today because they were products of natural selection acting on a variety of developed phenotypes in the past history of the species’ (Lloyd, 2015: 344). In its most extreme form, all aspects of living organisms are seen as ‘optimal solutions to problems set by the environment and by the biology of the species’ (Lewontin, 1979: 5). On the contrary, argued these scholars, there exist multiple evolutionary forces that are non-adaptive, i.e. they do not offer any evolutionary advantage for the replication of the organism.

Perhaps the most important critique of the use of just-so stories in evolutionary biology, and one of the most widely discussed articles in the discipline, is the wondrously titled ‘The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm’ by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin (1979). In this article, the authors first describe the adaptationist programme (if perhaps an exaggerated version thereof) and address its pitfalls; then they show that the stories told by adaptationists lack criteria ‘to identify proper explanations among the substantial set of pathways to any modern result’ (p. 154), which is what makes their accounts ‘just-so stories’; finally, they conclude by offering a partial typology of alternatives to the adaptationist programme, advocating for a pluralist view of science.

Figure 3: The West Cupola of the San Marco Cathedral in Venice (XII century). The tapering triangular spaces between the arches are called spandrels. Source: Web Gallery of Art.

In the following forty years since the publication of the Spandrels paper, the discipline has been occupied in a long – and seldom fruitful – debate over two interrelated issues: whether evolution is adaptative or not, and whether adaptationist accounts can be expanded to the social sciences (for some topical contributions, in chronological order: Gould & Vrba, 1982; Mayr 1983; Gould, 1991; Buss et al., 1998; Rose & Rose, 2000; Andrews et al.¸ 2002; Richardson, 2007; Lewens, 2009; Nielsen, 2009; Lloyd, 2015; Lloyd & Gould, 2017; Smith, 2020).

The importance of this debate for this article lies in its epistemological implications. When Gould and Lewontin (1979) write that adaptationist accounts lack criteria to identify proper explanations, and when they list alternatives to adaptationist explanations, what they are really addressing is not a theoretical issue intrinsic to evolutionary biology, but a methodological one, concerning how one can go about studying the process of evolution and making inferences based on the theory of natural selection. Their argument is essentially two-pronged: about what kind of research question evolutionary biologists can ask; and about what kind of story can be told.

This point is made forcefully by Elisabeth Lloyd (2015). She suggests that adaptationist approaches to evolution restrict the range of questions that can be asked, and therefore the story that can be told. Thus, by asking ‘What is the function of this trait?’ instead of ‘Does this trait have a function?’, adaptationists are excluding a priori the possibility that phenotypical traits may not be adaptative. This precocious discarding of alternative explanations means that adaptationists cannot properly compare the weight of evidence for various hypotheses, leading them to offer unsubstantiated just-so stories (Lloyd, 2015: 351).

Figure 4: Illustration of an advertisement representing Dr Pangloss, a character from Voltaire's Candide, who argued in an ultra-adaptativist fashion that all is for the best in this ‘best of all possible worlds’. Source: British Museum

Evolutionary biologists that do not employ experimental methods in their research must generate narrative, historical accounts of how certain organisms came to develop traits performing specific functions, based on available evidence. Thus, for instance, skeletal records of the Archeopteryx suggest that feathers did not serve a flight function, but rather a predatory one, to make insect-catching more effective (cited in Gould & Vrba, 1982: 7). In other words, evolutionary biologists create stories about the origins of developed phenotypes, generating indirect inferences based on several clues and other techniques such as homology (similarities across species due to a common ancestor). Even with important advances in genetics and technology, some evolutionary inferences today must still rely on historical narratives that are unable to directly determine which traits selection acted on (Nielsen, 2009).

What, then, distinguishes such historical narratives from Kipling’s ‘just-so stories’? Gould and Lewontin’s (1979) point is that adaptationists do not actually employ a suitably historical method, relying instead on an ‘unwarranted inferential method’ whereby, after assuming the ‘fact’ of the design, complex structures and behaviours are explained in terms of natural selection, often without independent evidence. In so doing, they argue not for design, which is their starting point but instead employ a circular logic that goes from form to function and again from function to form, with no attempt to provide independent evidence regarding the causes of the current form (Richardson, 2007).

Figure 5: Drawing of four of the species of finches observed by Darwin on the Galápagos Islands. Finches are one of the most well-known examples of evolution due to their stark diversity. Photo credits: Ann Ronan Pictures. Source: The Guardian

Just-so stories beyond evolutionary biology

Up to this point, the discussion has focused on evolutionary biology because of its affinity with the picture of ‘just-so stories’ that Kipling’s work painted. However, narrative approaches abound well beyond evolutionary biology. In many domains, some phenomena can only, or best be known via narratives (Morgan & Wise, 2017). For instance, when anthropologists attempt to provide explanations regarding the origins of civilisation, they are telling stories that piece together their clues. Even comparable bits of evidence can lead to contrasting inferences, depending on how they fit the researchers’ story. As an example, Graeber and Wengrow (2021) build on Jared Diamond’s (1997) insights on the rise of agriculture, only to offer a completely different assessment of its role in history.

As Morgan and Wise (2017: 2) put it, narratives help create ‘coherence between a variety of different elements that otherwise do not appear to hang together, but do need to be made to fit sensibly together whenever an investigator recognises that they are all elements that belong to the phenomenon to be described or explained.’ Their explanatory power, they argue, ‘lies in being able to chart a satisfactory path not just through contingencies, possibilities and alternatives, but to do so by making active use of those features’ (Morgan & Wise, 2017: 2). Thus, to distinguish them from ‘just-so stories’, these narrative accounts need to be able to navigate several possibilities and alternatives – that is, they need to conform to an appropriate research question that does not exclude such alternatives a priori, and which allows the researcher to offer independent evidence.

The dilemmatic nature of just-so stories in scientific research thus becomes apparent. On the one hand, importing narrative language into evolutionary and historical explanations is necessary since explanations are by definition stories. On the other hand, such an approach becomes dangerous – particularly in evolutionary biology – due to the very nature of these stories. Stories have a beginning, a middle and an end, so they are necessarily teleological. Evolution and history are not: there is no defined end, and randomness can play a far more relevant role than some narrative accounts give it credit for (Levy, 2013).

Figure 6: Fossil picture from the Burgess Shale (Canada) of the Hallucigenia, a prehistoric worm so bizarre that it was the subject of many speculations and just-so stories regarding its adaptative form. Source: CBC News

What, then, is the role of just-so stories in scientific research? The discussion above denies any explanatory power to just-so stories. A more benevolent reading may argue that just-so stories have their epistemic role in evolutionary inquiry (Hubálek, 2021). Even before Gould (1978) attacked adaptationist accounts with the epithet of ‘just-so stories’, the anthropologist Ward H. Goodenough (1976: 34) suggested that researchers may need to ‘invent “just-so” stories and then accumulate […] circumstantial evidence that will make them more or less plausible as time goes on.’ The evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss (1995: 12) likewise notes that just-so stories are an ‘essential process of science’ that can serve as a baseline to pit different functional theories against each other in critical empirical tests. But such an exploratory role would barely distinguish just-so stories from the more commonly used term of ‘hypotheses.’ Why extend and displace established terminology, leading to nothing but conceptual confusion?

Hence, the easier solution would be to simply discard the use of the terminology of ‘just-so’ stories in scientific research. Rather, natural and social scientists alike could limit themselves to generate causal stories that are able: (a) to answer a broader range of research questions without any a priori exclusion of alternative explanations, thus endorsing a pluralistic view of science as advocated by Gould and Lewontin (1979); and (b) to navigate multiple contingencies, possibilities and alternatives by generating independent evidence that does not stem from the outcome, as suggested by Morgan and Wise (2017). This is nothing more than standard methodological advice that can be found in research method textbooks. Yet, history shows that this advice has either not been properly followed or has been, in the worst cases, outright dismissed.


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  • Nielsen, R. (2009). Adaptationism – 30 years after Gould and Lewontin. Evolution, 63(10), 2487-2490.

  • Richardson, R. C. (2007). Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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  • Smith, S. E. (2020). Is evolutionary psychology possible?. Biological Theory, 15(1), 39-49.

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1 Comment

Mar 04, 2022

I'm curious to see the role of a priori in future findings. I also really like Lloyd's rephrasing of the question.

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Marco Schito

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