Evolutionary Analysis of 'Little Red Riding Hood'


What big teeth you have.. Walter Crane/Getty

It's easy to get downright Jungian when considering the interactivity of global folktales. The same characters and scenarios appear again and again throughout human history. We share similar monsters and archetypes in much the same way we share genes.

So what happens when we apply evolutionary analysis to the evolution of a particular folktale? In "The Phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood," Jamshid Tehrani of Durham University asks just this, applying the scientific rigor normally reserved for the exploration of relationships between different species to the relationships between different tales of a certain wolf-bating damsel in distress.

Tehrani took 72 plot variables from the tale (related to character, villain, tactics, etc.), charted them and found that the African versions of the tale are not actually descended from "Little Red Riding Hood," but instead stem from a tale titled "The Wolf and the Kids." Meanwhile, East Asian seemingly evolved as a hybrid of the two.

The author proposes that such phylogenetic analysis of folklore might be used to augment traditional literary analysis in understanding the evolution of oral narratives.

Now let's take a look at Little Red's phylogenetic tree...

Here we see a maximum clade credibility tree returned by the Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of the tales. Scale bar indicates the average number of changes per character along a given edge.
Tehrani JJ, 2013

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.