Defending Just-So Stories

Why science needs stories

Posted Sep 24, 2012

Last week I spoke about the role of storytelling in science on NPR’s Big Picture Science (the interview won’t air until December). Most people think of story as belonging to the arty world of the humanities—as cut off from the data-driven, hyper-rational world of science. But scientists tell stories all the time. In fact, I think of science as a grand story that emerges—like religion—from our need to make sense of the world. As I’ve written elsewhere,

“The story-like character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe, of life, of storytelling itself. As we move back in time, the links between science’s explanatory stories and established facts become fewer and weaker. The scientist’s imagination becomes more adventurous and fecund as he is forced to infer more and more from less and less” (from The Storytelling Animal).

Take the theory of the Big Bang. It’s a scientific story with all the grandeur of a religious myth.  It takes us back 14 billion years to the origins of everything, and it carries us through to the apocalypse—to the time when all the energy fizzles, and the universe folds up in an annihilating “big crunch.” The Big Bang story originated in 1927 with a physicist and Roman Catholic priest named George LeMaitre (1894-1966), who dubbed it “the hypothesis of the primeval atom” (the term “Big Bang” was coined later). The story was controversial at first—not least because LeMaitre’s story about everything exploding from (almost) nothing smacked too much of the great moment in Genesis: “Let there be light.” To his detractors, Father LeMaitre’s scientific creation story meshed too conveniently with the biblical version.

When I was in graduate school in the 1990s, many postmodernists proclaimed that science was just another story, with no more claim to truth than other “ways of knowing” like religion or common sense. But I don’t believe that. The story of the Big Bang is backed up by data that scientists have been gathering for decades, and it enjoys widespread support. I believe science deserves its special status—its cultural prestige—not because it avoids storytelling (it doesn’t), but because it handles its stories so roughly. Humans are prone to confirmation bias—we have a tendency to go out and gather evidence for stories that we already believe in. But scientists are trained to go about things the other way around. They spend their days probing for weaknesses in their favorite stories. This is the whole source of science’s power.

Which brings me to Adam Gottlieb, a New Yorker writer who recently stirred controversy with his critique of evolutionary psychology. Gottlieb’s argument is quite dusty. It goes back more than 30 years to the fervent ur-critic of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology Stephen Jay Gould.  Following Gould, Gottlieb argues that evolutionary psychology lacks scientific merit because it amounts to nothing more than an anthology of just-so stories.

Gould in an episode of The Simpsons

But this critique holds little water. Evolution is an intrinsically story-based discipline. All evolutionists shape hypotheses in the form of historical narratives. That is, they develop a plausible account of how some biological feature—from pair-bonding, to upright posture, to aggression—may have emerged through the evolutionary process, and then seek to test the account against information derived from a wide variety of sources. So Gould, as an evolutionist, was actually a thoroughgoing just-so storyteller himself. His story of how the woman got her orgasm is as speculative and storylike as anything you’ll find in evolutionary psychology. The difference: EP has tended to favor stories where features of human anatomy and behavior serve a specific evolutionary function, and Gould favored stories where they didn’t. In Gould’s account, a man’s orgasm serves an obvious evolutionary function, while a woman’s orgasm—and the clitoris that enables it—is a functionless (if fortunate) evolutionary side effect. (Perhaps one day I’ll write a post on why I find this particular story to be so far-fetched.)   

Critics of evolutionary psychology, including Gould, have pointed out many weaknesses in the discipline, and have helped it reach a more humble and mature form. And they are right to point out that it is hard to test certain EP ideas as thoroughly as we might like. But EP stories make predictions that can be tested against data from genetics, primatology, sociology, developmental psychology, and many other fields. For example, the big idea of 1990s evolutionary psychology was the hypothesis of the massively modular mind. The mind had no general processing software and little plasticity, it was argued; it was like an iPhone with zillions of little apps, all designed to do one thing and one thing only (e.g., face recognition, cheater detection). This idea has now been tested against neuroscientific data, and found wanting (for an overview of this research see David Buller’s Adapting Minds). Just-so stories can be tested.

The story of the human mind is about an organ that evolved to the point of self-fascination.  It deemed itself the most beautifully complex phenomenon in the known universe, turned inward, and decided that its greatest challenge was to plumb the mysteries of its own nature. These mysteries cannot be scientifically addressed without the storytelling discipline of evolutionary psychology.  Without EP we can perhaps develop a solid description of what humans are. But we can’t get to “why?” To stop telling and testing just-so stories would be to forfeit hope of answering the oldest, deepest, and most compelling questions about our species: Who are we and how did we get this way? 

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human