Sunday, 18 May 2008

African Folktales and Darwinian Just-So Stories: Is There a Connection?

The hyena is the focus of a traditional just so story. Image from Wikipedia

Joel Kontinen

The term just so story originated with Nobelist Rudyard Kipling’s 1902 collection Just So Stories for Little Children. The tales were light-hearted explanations of how animals got a certain trait, as the names of the stories indicate, for instance How the Leopard got His Spots or How the Camel got his Hump.

Kipling did not invent the just so idea. Similar thoughts can be seen in African folktales that predate Kipling’s time by many decades if not centuries. The Kikuyus of Kenya, for instance have a fascinating explanation for the hyena’s peculiar gait (its front legs are longer than the back legs) that includes a group of hyenas riding through the skies on an eagle’s wing and falling to the ground and hurting their legs in the process.

Darwinists might have a just so story of why apes came down from trees, but the Luos have an explanation of why monkeys took to the trees: in the olden days the monkey and elephant were good friends but their friendship ended when the elephant suspected that the monkey had cheated him. The monkey had managed to buy a fat healthy-looking cow at the local cattle market while the elephant could only get an ill-fed one. People began to make fun of the poor elephant who became angry and drove the monkey up a tree. According to the story, monkeys have lived in trees ever since.

The mother of all current evolutionary just so stories seems to be Charles Darwin’s idea of a warm little pond where the first living cell supposedly originated. Before Darwin there was Lamarck who invented a story of how the giraffe got such a long neck by straining it to get at the upper branches of an acacia tree during a severe drought when food was scarce. This explanation postulates that since then nature has favored long-necked giraffes.

The problem with this scenario is that giraffes tend to prefer the lower branches, not the upper ones. Similar problems abound in Darwinian just so stories.

In 1997 Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin wrote in The New York Review of Books that scientists often choose to make up “unsubstantiated just-so stories” because they “have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism… Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.”

Unfortunately, instead of following the evidence where it leads Neo-Darwinian biologists tend to follow their prior commitment to explanations that exclude all hints of design.


Lewontin, Richard. 1997. Billions and billions of demons. The New York Review of Books, p. 31 (9 January 1997).

Mwangi, Rose. 1970. Kikuju Folktales: Their Nature and Value. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.

Odaga, Bole Asenath. 1980. Thu Tinda! Stories From Kenya. Nairobi: Uzima.