Sean McDowell | September 28, 2016

Why Evolutionary "Just So" Stories Fail

Why Evolutionary “Just-so” Stories Fail

During my graduate philosophy work at Talbot, I took an independent study on Darwinism and intelligent design. My guiding professor, Dr. Garry Deweese, had me read books on both sides of the debate, including Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins.

It was during this study that I began to understand the concept of a “just-so” story, and it has stuck with me ever since. Essentially, to save the Darwinian paradigm, Darwinists sometimes come up with logically possible, but evidentially unsubstantiated stories to account for some recalcitrant feature in the natural world (yes, Christian apologists can sometimes be accused of doing the same thing to explain apparent contradictions in the Bible. But that is a story for another time).

For instance, evolution has been used to explain why men (allegedly) prefer blondes to brunettes, why humans like to burn their mouths with hot chilies, and the origin of religion.

On a more serious (and common) note, many Darwinists aim to provide an evolutionary explanation for morality. As it is often claimed, morality is a tool for survival. After all, if we didn’t have principles such as faithfulness, promise keeping, and honesty, we couldn’t function as a society. Society would crumble if there were no moral code. A belief that there is a real right and wrong helps species survive and flourish.

Now, morality certainly could, at least in principle, provide an evolutionary advantage to a particular species. If a group of human beings, for instance, lacked any moral compass, they would arguably be less likely to survive than a tribe committed to courage, honesty, and chastity. But this possible explanation fails to explain how morality evolved in the first place. Rather than providing an actual mechanism for the evolution of morality, the evolutionist offers a benefit of evolution, and then assumes his job is done.

But this misses the point. If Darwinists want to provide a successful mechanism that can account for the totality of life, they need to offer an explanation for how these features evolved in the first place. It is not enough for naturalists to begin with a certain feature of the world and explain its (supposed) evolutionary advantage. There is always some possible evolutionary story that can be spun to save the theory. For their views to have explanatory power, naturalists must first provide an explanation for how a given feature evolved in the first place.

In his excellent book The Experience of God, David Bentley Hart offers a helpful illustration for how naturalist just-so stories fail to explain key features in reality, such as consciousness:

If I should visit you at your home and discover that, rather than living in a house, you instead shelter under a large roof that simply hovers above the ground, apparently neither supported by nor suspended from anything else, and should ask you how this is possible, I should not feel at all satisfied if you were to answer, ‘It’s to keep the rain out’—not even if you were then helpfully elaborate upon this by observing that keeping the rain out is evolutionary advantageous.[i]

Hart is exactly right. Offering a positive benefit of why a hovering house protects from rain does not explain how such a feature originated. Similarly, explaining how consciousness benefits mankind does not to explain how consciousness first emerged. An explanation that merely explains why such a feature is beneficial leaves the mystery unexplained.

All evolutionary “just-so” stories are certainly not equal. Some are much more believable, natural, and evidentially supported than others. But many are simply outlandish. The key point is that, for Darwinism to be considered a successful worldview with explanatory power, it needs to explain some of the big features of reality, such as the origin of morality, consciousness, personhood, and free will. Unless it can successfully explain these features, Darwinism itself is merely a “just-so” story.

Sean McDowell, a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 18 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

[i] David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 205-206.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: