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 . 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 . “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).