A Family Tree For Fairy Tales

Victoria Turk explains how anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani is using the tools of evolutionary science to discover the origins of folk stories:

In his introduction to [his] study, published in the journal PLOS One, Tehrani explained that the common historic-geographic method of classifying folktales into “types” was flawed owing to a tendency to lump stories with a few similar plot points together despite dissimilarities they might have, as well as a sampling bias resulting from a focus on European tales over other folklore traditions. Essentially, it’s all very tenuous and subjective.

So he turned to evolution. He used phylogenetic analysis, a technique developed to analyze the evolutionary relationships among biological species, to analyze links between similar folktales. Just as you might map the evolution of an animal by looking at species with similar traits, Tehrani set out to make a tree graph of Little Red Riding Hood’s ancestry based on characteristics it shares with folk stories through history.

Tehrani elaborates on his method:

The idea is to use a biologist’s tool to investigate the evolution of folktales. This is because folktales not only evolve through similar processes as biological species (variation, selection and inheritance), but the problems of reconstructing them are also comparable. Just as the fossil record bears witness to a tiny proportion of extinct ancestral species, the literary record provides scarce textual evidence about early forms of folktales because they have been mainly transmitted through oral means. Phylogenetics can fill these gaps by using information about the past that has been preserved through the mechanism of inheritance.

His findings:

[There’s a] long-running debate about the relationship between Little Red Riding Hood and similar tales from other regions of the world. These include East Asian tales in which a group of sisters are home alone when they hear a knock at the door. It is a tiger (or leopard, or some other predator) disguised as their grandmother. Despite her suspicious appearance (“Granny, why are your eyes so big?!”) they let her in. That night they share a bed, and the tiger eats the youngest girl to the horror of her sisters, who manage to escape.

Another tale, from central and southern Africa, involves a young girl who is tricked by an ogre pretending to be her brother. When her brother finds out he tracks down the ogre, kills him and cuts her out of the villain’s belly. Both these tales bear a clear resemblance to Little Red Riding Hood. But they are also similar to another well-known international type tale: “The Wolf and the Kids,” in which a group of goat kids are devoured by a wolf who gets into their house by impersonating their mother.

By analyzing variables in the plots and characters of 58 folktales using three methods of phylogenetic analysis, I was able to establish, in a paper just published in PLOS ONE, that the African tales are clearly more closely related to The Wolf and the Kids than they are to Little Red Riding Hood. The East Asian tales evolved by blending together elements from both these tales and from local folktales.