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Little Red Riding Hood gets an evolutionary makeover

A controversial digital analysis traces the origins of several well-known folktales

MY, WHAT BIG DATA YOU HAVE  A scholarly dispute has broken out over whether a new statistical analysis accurately portrays the evolution of folktales such as “Little Red Riding Hood.”

Back off, Big Bad Wolf. The Ravenous Data Cruncher has cornered “Little Red Riding Hood,” brandishing a statistical exposé of the fictional girl’s hazy past.

In computer analyses that track the evolution of 58 documented folktales, anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani of Durham University in England finds that related versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” spread from a European origin over at least the last millennium.

To illuminate the tale’s history, Tehrani relied on three statistical programs that construct evolutionary family trees, or phylogenies, of people and other organisms based on genetic relationships among living and ancient individuals. Controversial attempts to reconstruct language evolution with phylogenetic methods have also recently appeared (SN: 11/19/11, p. 22).

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