Jamshid Tehrani is a Professor at the Department of Anthropology, Durham University (UK) and member of the Durham Cultural Evolution Research Centre (DCERC). His research examines how culture evolves as it gets transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation, with a special focus on popular narratives, such as traditional folktales, urban legends and modern day conspiracy theories.
Stories without borders: following the tracks of international folktales
Some folktales remain forever rooted in particular times and places, whereas others travel widely, spreading across regions, countries and even entire continents. These stories without borders are known as “international types of folktale” and include such tales as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Beauty and the Beast. In this lecture, I consider the ways in which these mainly orally-transmitted stories mutate as they get passed down from generation to generation and adapt to new habitats. I will show how methods from evolutionary biology can be used to analyse the plots of related stories in the same way as sequences of DNA to reconstruct the origins and dispersal of these traditions. I will also reflect on some of the wider implications of this research for understanding the cultural success and stability of traditional stories, what they can tell us about the past, and the complex relationships between patterns of cultural, linguistic, and genetic inheritance.