When Storytelling Meets Science

Bryan P. Carpender for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

“Once upon a time…” That’s a familiar intro that we all know, in one form or another. In most cases, we all grew up with folktales. They’re passed down from generation to generation, told by doting parental figures to their children, not just to entertain, but to convey some moral lesson or cautionary warning. Folktales are a way to teach values and, in some cases, common sense.

Now a fascinating new study shows that the Brothers Grimm might not have the market cornered on folktales. It’s no secret that many plots from the Grimm folktales are strikingly similar to stories from diverse and disparate cultures the world over. A new research study uses science to analyze relationships between various folktales. Not just basic science, but phylogenetic analysis, which is quite a mouthful. Phylogenetics is used to investigate the evolutionary relationships between biological species by constructing a taxonomy tree illustrating relationships of common ancestry based on shared traits.

In the study by Jamie Tehrani of Durham University in the UK, published this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, the author focuses on “Little Red Riding Hood” and related tales, analyzing 72 plot variables to demonstrate the differences between the tales, while highlighting the shared similarities.

Tracking such elements as the character of the protagonist, the featured villain, and the tricks employed by the villain to deceive the victim, Tehrani was able to determine that the African tales are not actually derivatives of “Little Red Riding Hood”, but instead are more closely related to the tales “The Wolf and the Kids.” Further analysis discovered that the East Asian tales synthesized elements from both stories to create another amalgamated folktale altogether.

This suggests that by using phylogenetics, we can identify distinct groups of folktales crossing geographic and cultural boundaries, leading to a deeper understanding of how these oral narratives develop and evolve. The evolution happens organically as the tales are passed down from generation to generation; embellishments are made, new parts are added to the story, and other parts are either eliminated or lost over time. Though there are variants from culture to culture, the common themes endure, gathering us all together around the metaphorical campfire.

“Folktales are excellent targets for phylogenetic analysis because, like biological species, they evolve over generations and adapt to new environments as they spread from region to region,” said Tehrani. “Since folktales are mainly transmitted via oral tradition, it can be difficult to study their development using conventional tools of literary analysis, because there are so few historical texts. My study shows how we can overcome these difficulties by using the same approach that biologists have used to fill the gaps in the fossil record.”

It doesn’t matter if the story you learned had a protagonist that was a single, plucky girl with a deep abiding love for her grandmother (and questionable judgment when it comes to talking to strangers), or a group of siblings escaping the clutches of a tiger, ogre, or other villain archetype. One lesson we all share is that we are all threads in the tapestry woven by the truly universal language of folklore and storytelling — regardless of geography or cultural influences — which is comforting in this digital age. Another universal lesson you can practically bet on: don’t talk to wolves — it usually doesn’t end well.