Friday, February 08, 2013

How Stories Spread

In the paper "Population structure and cultural geography of a folktale in Europe" the authors discover that the rate of cultural transmission of a certain kind of folk tale is slower than the rate of genetic drift. At first glance, it seems surprising that cultural transmission of a folktale is slower than the rate of genetic drift; however, if we consider both the way folktales are transmitted and the way genes are spread in a population, I find this result less surprising.

We must first ask ourselves how it is that folktales spread. In most cases, folktales are spread from mother to children. If we consider the fact that women tend to be more geographically stationary than men, and given the fact that most folktales such as the one you used as a model are spread from mother to children, the relative geographical stability of folktales is what one would expect. On the other hand, men, who are far less likely to spread folktales, are far more likely to range far and wide, spreading their DNA as they go.

It thus seems to me that an interesting comparison would be the spread of mitochondrial DNA vs. Y-chromosomal DNA vs. spread of folktales. I would not be surprised if one were to find the rate of transmission of mitochondrial DNA across geographical space would be very close to that of folktales, while the spread of the Y-chromosomal DNA would be much faster.

I find this kind of work very exciting. If one were in fact to find a gender-specific correlation such as I suggest, one might find the spread of say, folk songs, correlating more with general genetic drift, if not correlating more with Y drift.
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