Humans Swap DNA More Readily Than They Swap Stories


A new study looks at how changes in a widespread folktale moved around Europe.

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. (Watch a video of the Frau Holle fairytale.)

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.


Researchers have viewed human culture through the lens of genetics for decades, said Atkinson. “It’s a fair comparison in the sense that it’s just variation across human groups.”

But unlike genes, which move into a population relatively easily and can propagate randomly, it’s harder for new ideas to take hold in a group, he said. Even if a tale can bridge the “ethnolinguistic boundary,” there are still forces that might work against a new cultural variation that wouldn’t necessarily affect genes.

“Humans don’t copy the ideas they hear randomly,” Atkinson said. “We don’t just choose … the first story we hear and pass it on.

“We show what’s called a conformist bias—we’ll tend to aggregate across what we think everyone else in the population is doing,” he explained. If someone comes along and tells a story a little differently, most likely, people will ignore those differences and tell the story like everyone else is telling it.

Written By: Jane J. Lee
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  1. In reply to #1 by stuhillman:

    OK. Then …………… what?

    Certain types of memes are surprisingly (to me) stable. That’s interesting, I think. It suggests significant cultural infrastructure is required for specific stories to survive. It’s also in contrast to the findings of Campbell and similar who looked for similarities rather than differences.

  2. Many years ago, I spent a few months collecting/researching folk tales from around the world. I read hundreds of folk tales all which were in the public domain. Many were obscure stories that most people have never heard while others were familiar to all of us; It was fascinating to see the common themes and subtle differences. I’ve read several versions of the kind and unkind girl. In most all stories, they were sisters; the youngest being the kind sister. In China and many countries she was the one who took care of aging parents and was a good hard worker. Her older sisters were jealous, selfish, demanding, domineering… Just a few countries switched the kind sister to the eldest. She being the strong and reliable one. I wish I could remember which countries switched the birth order – I read these stories decades ago. Elements of this tale can be found in Cinder(ella) stories in which the main character usually younger and prettier, slaved at her chores, while the older evil step sisters were lazy, ugly and mean. The one thing I do recall is that the stories did reflect the culture’s standards and expectations. There were no big surprises except for the seemingly lack of moral code dominant in the stories.

    Many folk stories are violent, and considered unsuitable for children by today’s standards. Children were eaten by witches, murdered, horrible situations would occur, and illegal or “immoral” actions were glossed over as if it were acceptable during that time. Stories were frequently used as warnings rather than positive teaching tools. (Don’t do this or you’ll be eaten by wolves.) Roles were clearly spelled out. If there were any transformations it involved a positive change in income, status, or a female accepting a really horrible beastly, ugly man (who isn’t as nice as the Disney stories make him out to be.) My favorite story has elements of a Jack and the beanstalk story. A husband foolishly traded a cow for a pot (cauldron) with legs. The angry wife yelled, belittled and acted abusive toward her “foolish” “stupid” husband. When the pot went missing she was even more livid. All this changed when she realized that the pot with legs became alive at night and would return in the morning with lots of valuable and useful stuff. Where did it come from? The neighbors of course! It is amazing how many folk stories have magical objects that rob their neighbors. I recall my grandmother saying how people from the old country were lying, cheating, thieves that could not be trusted. One of her brothers was kicked to death by the gypsies. When people say that religion was created as a way of controlling the masses. I think of these stories, true and fiction, and realize that maybe they initially had good reasons.

    Folk stories are also interesting because they support the view that stories change to fit the culture – especially since most of these stories were not written down. At times the changes to plot, are so significant that only the achetypal character remains (with a different name.) A Cinderella story in Africa is significantly different than one from Slovakia. Consider how these changes reflect the story of the Bible.

    I recall the joy of an art historian who was ecstatic because the museum acquired a textile piece that proved a theory she had about the stylistic/technical roots of a particular culture’s textile designs. She was sure that the style/technique was the result of mixing two cultures – enslaved craftsmen and the culture in which the slaves worked. Here was an early textile piece that showed the style and technique of the slaves along with the other culture in one piece. Eventually, the slave’s style/ transitioned toward the new culture but maintained elements of their technique making a whole new consistent style. Stories are the same way. (Could parts of the Jesus story come from Egypt? hmm) Introduction of a new culture or new idea can initially shake things up, but at some point in time things settle. We will see how this plays out with the internet. No wonder some people want to control it.

  3. Has anyone tried passing on genes and telling stories at the same time? It requires a bit of concentration, but it’s real multi-tasking in action.

  4. As human minds are mostly environmental constructs, infrastructure as the article suggests is the key to all of this.

    Perhaps a new meme-regulating meme; containing critical self-reflection and analysis of ones local and cultural memes, weighing their costs and benefits, coupled with a kind of peer-review in which deconstruction and dismissal of faulty and bad memes are encouraged and celebrated.

    In a pre informational age such a thing would have been hard to do effectively to any satisfying degree.

  5. In reply to #5 by Hortan:

    As human minds are mostly environmental constructs, infrastructure as the article suggests is the key to all of this.

    Perhaps a new meme-regulating meme; containing critical self-reflection and analysis of ones local and cultural memes, weighing their costs and benefits, coupled with a kind of peer-review in which deconstruction and dismissal of faulty and bad memes are encouraged and celebrated.

    In a pre informational age such a thing would have been hard to do effectively to any satisfying degree.

    The interesting thing is that many religions have some sort of element that preaches or teaches change. Taoism is obvious, but even Christianity talks about the resurrection – Christ in a new form. They teach about not looking back and moving forward. I heard one preacher use the analogy that the wake of a boat is not what propels it forward. Yet most religions thrive on the familiar, the rock on which the church is built, traditions, the status quo. Cultures treasure their brand of music, art, song, dance, ideology, rules, and long held cultural uniqueness which is common to all the people. Some of this is positive, but other views are binding and constrict growth. They end up being a herd which is threatened by stray cats. Good luck in finding a new meme-regulating meme. I think it’s called education and skepticism.

  6. This is most interesting. I wonder if one of the reasons is something along these lines. If we agree that culture evolves (and not all of us do, I know) then just to make any analysis of that evolution requires us to divide up the continuum of meaning into discrete particles which, somewhat after Dennet, it might be okay to call demons – loci of the smallest possible difference in meaning in the brain, but also distributed about the continuum of the material universe in things, language, behaviour and so on. To be selected and survive, these demons must operate together in organised patterns, analogous to alliances. Alliances ally with other alliances. One demon, or a very similar iteration, can be in many alliances. The situation is complex.

    Now fairy, or more particularly folk stories. One can be struck by how often folk stories and myths from other cultures, or a previous time in our own, seem to make little sense, be rather pointless, even formless and illogical.

    A folk story has survived through generations of tellers and listeners. It will form part of the natural pedagogy to which each child is subjected, at the same time as they are accumulating millions, billions of other demons, loci of the smallest possible difference in meaning, from the universe. The folk story, a multitudinous alliance of demons, will join up with other alliances in the child’s brain, and will get it’s meanings from that environment. Though to a sliver of rock struck off by a spear aimed at a kangaroo, which becomes honey (the chip of rock, not the kangaroo), may not mean a lot to me, it clearly might to a Yolngu child (Howard Morphy, Relative Autonomy and the Articulations of Yolngu Art, 2011), and mesh with her universe of meaning, her metaverse, very comprehensively.

    At any locus in the story, any alternative micro-alliance or sub-routine of demons (river, bottom of well, cave) would not only lack bonds with its immediate narrative surroundings, but also with the wider meanings to which the whole story related within the child’s ideoverse. So the forces against such substituion are pretty strong.

    I realise this begs a lot of questions, particularly the circularity of meaning.But it can be expanded.

  7. Well yeah. After all, most of these stories are told to children and they become part of the child’s fond memories and are passed on pretty verbatim. Don’t think so? Try sitting down and talking about Goldilocks and the Five Bears to any kid old enough to talk and see how fast you’re corrected.

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