Thursday, February 14, 2013

Population structure and cultural geography of a folktale in Europe

Price's Diamonds and Toads

From Humans Swap DNA More Readily Than They Swap Stories: A new study looks at how changes in a widespread folktale moved around Europe by Jane J. Lee:

Once upon a time, someone in 14th-century Europe told a tale of two girls—a kind one who was rewarded for her manners and willingness to work hard, and an unkind girl who was punished for her greed and selfishness.

This version was part of a long line of variations that eventually spread throughout Europe, finding their way into the Brothers Grimm fairytales as Frau Holle, and even into Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

In a new study, evolutionary psychologist Quentin Atkinson is using the popular tale of the kind and unkind girls to study how human culture differs within and between groups, and how easily the story moved from one group to another.

Atkinson, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and his co-authors employed tools normally used to study genetic variation within a species, such as people, to look at variations in this folktale throughout Europe.

The researchers found that there were significant differences in the folktale between ethnolinguistic groups—or groups bound together by language and ethnicity. From this, the scientists concluded that it's much harder for cultural information to move between groups than it is for genes.

The study, published February 5 in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that about 9 percent of the variation in the tale of the two girls occurred between ethnolinguistic groups. Previous studies looking at the genetic diversity across groups in Europe found levels of variation less than one percent.

For example, there's a part of the story in which the girls meet a witch who asks them to perform some chores. In different renditions of the tale, the meeting took place by a river, at the bottom of a well, or in a cave. Other versions had the girls meeting with three old men or the Virgin Mary, said Atkinson.

Oh me oh my! And here I keep debating between Diamonds and Toads and the Six Swans and sometimes Swan Maidens for the next SurLaLune collection. It seems the universe keeps voting for Diamonds and Toads which is how I usually reference Kind and Unkind Girls in conversation (but not in my head interestingly enough) since that is a mouthful. And Diamonds and Toads sticks in people's brains better, too. Something about the image of vomiting snakes and such is compelling!

I can't wait to read the study and am fascinated by the tale because there is such an abundance of versions--I've lost count on how many I have collected myself. I have at least half a book already without any effort.

Here's the paper's abstract while we're here too:

Despite a burgeoning science of cultural evolution, relatively little work has focused on the population structure of human cultural variation. By contrast, studies in human population genetics use a suite of tools to quantify and analyse spatial and temporal patterns of genetic variation within and between populations. Human genetic diversity can be explained largely as a result of migration and drift giving rise to gradual genetic clines, together with some discontinuities arising from geographical and cultural barriers to gene flow. Here, we adapt theory and methods from population genetics to quantify the influence of geography and ethnolinguistic boundaries on the distribution of 700 variants of a folktale in 31 European ethnolinguistic populations. We find that geographical distance and ethnolinguistic affiliation exert significant independent effects on folktale diversity and that variation between populations supports a clustering concordant with European geography. This pattern of geographical clines and clusters parallels the pattern of human genetic diversity in Europe, although the effects of geographical distance and ethnolinguistic boundaries are stronger for folktales than genes. Our findings highlight the importance of geography and population boundaries in models of human cultural variation and point to key similarities and differences between evolutionary processes operating on human genes and culture.

1 comment:

  1. There are many practical problems in the paper: see