The Loh Down On Science

How seemingly different folktales might actually be the same

Can a fictional damsel evolve?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, bringing phylogenetics to fairy tales.

Which is not as scary as it sounds. Biologists use phylogenetics when they draw trees to show how animals are related through evolution.  Connections appear between species that share genes and traits.

The tool gave anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani at the UK's Durham University an idea.  Maybe this approach could show connections among tales from all over the world.  After all, stories change as they get passed from person to person—like genes!

Africa and East Asia both have stories similar to Europe's Little Red Riding Hood.  But are they actually versions of the same story?  Instead of genetic variations, Tehrani looked for shared plot variables among story variations.  Like whether a tiger or wolf menaced the child.  And what tricks the villains used.

By his analysis, the European version of Red Riding Hood is distinct from a similar story —The Wolf and the Kids—that's told in Africa.  But similar stories in East Asia combine the two stories.

So look out, Brothers Grimm!  If the giants aren’t coming after you, anthropologists are.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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