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  • Kathleen Ragan (bio)

The last hundred years of scholarship have given a worldwide, cross-cultural context to the study of the folk narrative and a pervasive recognition that "When something has the ability to attract and repel one so forcefully, one may assume that it deals with fundamentals" (Lüthi 22). Therefore, folktale and fairy-tale scholars are perfectly poised to enter and help shape the emerging field of literary Darwinism, which connects evolutionary theory and literature.

In Gottschall's interesting response to my article, he acknowledges the basic soundness of my research. This agreement presents us with the opportunity to broaden the topic of this reply and to explore an evolutionary approach to the study of the folk narrative. It is important to first note that Gottschall raises questions on three points:

  1. 1. That my sample is not large enough "to be considered representative of world folk traditions." ("Sampling")

  2. 2. That "Ragan's two-thirds threshold is a needless complication." ("Elimination of Moderating Effects")

  3. 3. That "Ragan suggests that earlier scholars, me included, have been blind to the issue of possible gender distortion in their studies." ("Framing")

Point number one would be a serious concern if I had claimed that my results are representative of world folk traditions. Although a logical extension of my work is to see if the results are representative of world folk traditions, my current article deals with a more tightly defined issue: bias in a data set of random tales from a large academic library.

Point number two deals with a choice I made in the analysis of my data. Cavalli-Sforza recommends that for complex cultural issues, one should choose a level for analysis that makes differences observable (see Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman). I specifically chose the two-thirds threshold for simplicity and clarity. After one-half, the next simplest fraction is one-third. Just as a 51 percent majority is needed to pass a law but a two-thirds majority is needed to override a veto, the two-thirds threshold creates a definitive example of "Female" or "Male" dominance in the tale. Gottschall would prefer an analysis that eliminates the defining threshold. That analysis might give interesting results, too, but it is a different study.

Regarding point number three, there seems to be a regrettable misunderstanding. In my article I wrote that to his credit, Gottschall himself identified the problem that a biased data set would lead to. Gottschall has made daring [End Page 443] forays into the emerging field of literary Darwinism and has certainly not been blind to possible gender bias. However, my research established that data sets that do not effectively control for gender are very likely to be biased. A biased data set compromises the research done with that data set regardless of the intentions of the researcher.

The time is ripe for folktale and fairy-tale experts to explore the use of sociobiological and evolutionary concepts. However, the fundamental question of how scientific style analysis will be applied is as yet undetermined and very important. In the case of literature, scientific style analysis will not be applied to the physical world by a social being; rather, it will be applied to the social world by a social being. This raises the important question: How should scientific style investigation be applied to the study of the folk narrative, and with what caveats? In the following exploration of this question, theoretical points will be illustrated using examples from my article and from Gottschall's response.

The scientific style analysis applied to culture by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists is highly reductionistic. Reductionism has two basic and limiting assumptions that must be well understood and constantly kept in mind. The first assumption is that dividing an entity into smaller units will enable a better understanding of the larger entity. Sociobiology uses the "selfish" gene, a self-replicating biological unit, and the meme, a theoretical, self-replicating, cultural unit (see Dawkins). However, difficulties with the idea of a "selfish" meme self-replicating can immediately be discerned. Calling a tale a selfish meme is simply personification. A fairy tale is no more selfish than it is lonely or married. Secondly, a tale...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-1802
Print ISSN
1521-4281
Pages
pp. 443-448
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-06
Open Access
No
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