Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Phylogenetics and Folktales

Recently, I came across an article titled "The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood." At first, I was amused by the fact that the title could be read to suggest that someone had established the genetic origins of Little Red Riding Hood, as if she were a real person. Of course, what the article was really about is the origins in oral tradition of the tale that we have come to know, primarily through the efforts of Charles Perrault, as Little Red Riding Hood.

I have always loved folktales, but I have also always been dismayed by the way in which Disney, Looney Tunes, and children's literature more generally have sanitized and prettified these tales to remove the deeper threat to existence they all possess and leave them with a sticky sweet happily-ever-after patina. Most folktales were never designed for children, except perhaps to frighten them into obedience. Rather, folktales were designed to pass down the collected wisdom and experience of communities, as a means of preserving social order and helping people to cope with the harsh realities of daily life. And, their origins are much richer and older than we often imagine.

In contrast to the historical and geographic methods that have traditionally been used to establish the origins of folktales, phylogenetic analysis uses statistical techniques to study the evolutionary relationships among groups of objects, taking into account a much larger set of variables, and analyzing a much more complex set of relationships. Without going too deeply into the mathematical details, the article's author used cladistic analysis, Bayesian analysis, and NeighbourNet graphing to establish relationships among 58 variants on the story from around the world. Simply stated, the objective was to establish the model that best fit the data.  

It turns out that the tale we now know as Little Red Riding Hood is a hybrid constructed out of three major strains, with a number of minor variations. One strain identified with the story of The Wolf and the Kids has its origins in Africa. A second strain associated with the story of Tiger Grandmother comes from East Asia. The third strain, linking Little Red Riding Hood, Catterinella, and The Story of Grandmother, is associated with the Middle East and Europe. The East Asian strain turns out to be the most recent, with the Middle Eastern and European strain being the best candidate for the oldest set of variants. 

The research suggests that the earliest forms of this story are about 2000 years old. Further, despite what has happened to the tale at the hands of modern interpreters, it appears that if you want to avoid getting eaten by a wolf, a tiger, or your grandmother, just ask permission to go to the toilet!

The article by Jamshid Tehrani is available to download from the open access journal PloS One, from the Public Library of Science.