If I Were a Horse

Ever since Darwin there have been people who see evolution as essentially progressive — they explain the appearance of all traits and behaviors as adaptive. The classic critique of this view came from Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin in “The Spandrels of San Marcos and the Panglossian Paradigm” (1979). Here and elsewhere, Gould characterized the adaptationist programme as “just so storytelling,” a wry reference to Rudyard Kipling’s delightful tales about how various animals acquired their quirks.

I had always thought that Gould originated the “just so” phrase, which is typically deployed as a term of derision (and often applied to the adaptive fairy tales told by some evolutionary psychologists). Gould, however, seems to have lifted the phrase from E.E. Evans Pritchard.

In Theories of Primitive Religion (1965), Evans-Pritchard criticized Edward Burnett Tylor’s animist theory of religion as a Kipling-like “just so” story. He iced the critical cake by claiming that Tylor had committed the “if I were a horse” fallacy, which goes something like this:

Because we are not horses, have never been horses, and can’t know what it is like to be a horse, our speculations about horse-sense probably have little or no connection to horse-reality.

Evans-Pritchard claimed that the same reasoning applies to speculations about (or explanations for) “primitive religions.” It is interesting to note that Evans-Pritchard was greatly influenced by RR Marett, who succeeded Tylor at Oxford as the chair of anthropology. Like Tylor, Marett’s primary interest was religion. He was, however, skeptical about anthropology’s ability to explain origins and criticized reductive storytelling:

Now anthropological theories of the origin of religion seem to me to go wrong mainly because they seek to simplify too much. Having got down to what they take to be a root-idea, they straightaway proclaim it the root-idea. I believe that religion has just as few, or as many, roots as human life and mind.

Religion, in other words, is too complex to be accounted for with simplistic just-so storytelling.


R.R. Marett. 1906. “Note on the Origins and Function of Religion.” Sociological Papers, 3:167-268 (p. 228).

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One thought on “If I Were a Horse

  1. Lillian Cannon

    “I believe that religion has just as few, or as many, roots as human life and mind.”

    I think that this could be applied to almost anything. What constitutes a thorough understanding of a phenomenon? I suspect that understanding something in its entirety will not lead to G.U.T.s, but rather a particular reconstitution for which we will never have enough detail to reproduce the reality of it. It’s sort of like when I ask my children to tell me the plot of a movie they have seen. They cannot give me a quick recap – they eventually end up giving me a play-by-play. Does that make sense?

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