Monday, February 18, 2013

Folk tales show how culture spreads

Here’s another Nature News piece – there’s evidently a lot of language about (and more in the pipeline…).


It’s harder to transmit stories than genes across linguistic barriers

Have you heard the story of the good and bad sisters? They leave home, the good sister is kind to the people and animals she meets, and gets rewarded in gold. The bad sister is haughty and greedy, and is rewarded with a box of snakes.

This is a familiar folk tale in European culture. But how similar your version is to mine depends on how far apart we live and how ethnically and linguistically different our cultures are, according to a study by a team of researchers in Australia and New Zealand published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B [1]. They have identified what makes the transmission of cultural traits and artefacts, such as folk tales, similar to and different from the transmission of genes.

Like genes, say psychologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland and his collaborators, folk tales get passed from group to group – and the more distant two groups are, the less similarity their genes and stories possess.

“The geographic gradients we found are similar in scale to what we see in genetics, suggesting that there may be parallel processes responsible for mixing genetic and cultural information”, says Atkinson.

“But the mechanisms aren’t identical”, he adds. “The effect of ethnolinguistic boundaries is much stronger for the folktales than for genes.” This fits with recent studies looking at other aspects of culture, such as song [2]. “Our findings support predictions that cultural variation should be more pronounced between groups than genetic variation”, says Atkinson.

“This supports the view that our cultures act almost like distinct biological species”, says evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel of the University of Reading, a specialist in cultural transmission. “Our cultural groups draw pretty tight boundaries around themselves, and can absorb genetic immigrants without absorbing their cultures.”

Atkinson and his colleagues figured that the ubiquity of folk tales would make them a good proxy for cultural exchange. “Folktales can be transmitted over the world”, says folklore specialist Hans-Jörg Uther of the University of Göttingen in Germany. “The plot can stay the same while characters and other attributes change to match the cultural traits of the region.”

The researchers used the statistical tools of population genetics to investigate variations between versions of ‘The kind and the unkind girls’ across many European cultures, from Armenian to Scottish, Basque and Icelandic.

“This tale is widely known, and we were able to locate a large, well-documented collection that spanned all of Europe”, says Atkinson: about 700 variants in all. “For example, some stories involve two cousins or brothers rather than daughters, in others it is a daughter and servant girl.” The researchers built on well established methods of enumerating these differences.

If folk tales simply spread by diffusion, like ink blots in paper, one would expect to see smooth gradients in these variations as a function of distance. But instead the team found that ethnolinguistic differences between cultures create significant barriers.

These barriers are greater than those for gene flow. You could say that the attitude is “I’ll sleep with you, but I prefer my stories to yours.”

Uther finds the work interesting, but he is “a little bit sceptical about comparing variants while neglecting their historical context and mode of performance.” He suspects that, as digital archives of folk tales become increasingly available, they will provide a valuable tool for making comparative and evolutionary studies of culture more quantitative.

1. Ross, R. M., Greenhill, S. J & Atkinson, Q. D. Proc. R. Soc. B doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.3065 (2013).
2. Rzeszutek, T., Savage, P. E. & Brown, S. Proc. R. Soc. B 279, 1606-1612 (2011).

1 comment:

PACHAK said...

pardon me if am wrong, folktales are specific to region i.e. geography, hence is directly involved with ones physical experiences and suyzet is more important than the fabula. Actually fabula bears the loose morals (guidlines / laws) ... without justification to ones experiences ... so acceptances become rare ... unless it is infused within ones common and natural experiences ... to bring in reliance and or trust... it is same with a new person before one decide 0 or 1 to sleep with if at least, one knows that one won't get killed or infected ... . In India religions are strong acting force, specially hinduism. Yet, in here the mere concept of heaven could not penetrate into certain regions as it is in "popular" text, Ramayana, the Indian epic. For northern Indians we find Ravana, the villain started building a staircase to reach the heavens gate. northern region is Himalayan, yet when the story or idea of heaven had to penetrate eastern India, specifically Bengal, Now Bangladesh, full of rivers and waterways, we find in a hindu story / folklore, Manosa_mangala that a young bengali lady in order to seek life for her dead newly married husband, reaches Heaven in a canoe through rivers and waterways only. for this bengali lady if she had to reach heaven by staircase or through mountains, the heaven should have rotten into hell already. Yet, later on infused ideas of heaven across mountains were accepted in this part too but the popular heaven is still through waterways ... so much so ... that ... heaven on mountain is either accepted under pressure / fear or through fascination or infatuation or fantasy ... out of which one would get ready to sleep with the new rather unknown, provided no threat is assured ... yet still and always and for most waterways brings the trust and reliability directly from ones most common experiences and hence is easily preferred ... and even when there are folktales available worldwide over net ... one would remember and spread only those tales which are known and seems stable to one's self.