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The Cultural Evolution Society's Online Learning Series

CES Online Learning Tutorials

The Neverending Story: Cultural Evolution and Narratives

Narratives cover image.

Subject area

The cultural evolution of narratives is the application of cultural evolution theory and approaches to the study of narrative culture, including oral folktales, literature, film and conspiracy theories. Fictional narratives, or stories, are a uniquely human example of culture and have played a vital role in human life for 100,000 years, being the foundation of many of our creative arts and playing a crucial role in religion worldwide. Cultural evolution provides an excellent framework, in both theory and approaches, to better understand how narratives have changed over millennia, why they diversify into different versions, how they are shaped by the pressures of human minds and societies, and why some narratives are more likely to spread than others.

Module description

The module explores the universal and uniquely human behaviour of narrative, using a cultural evolution framework to provide vital insights into the transmission and evolution of narratives. Each lecture uses a narrative genre as it's basis, from romance to horror, and includes contemporary tales such as conspiracy theories and fake news. The lectures introduce relevant cultural evolution theory and explain how research methods such as transmission chains, phylogenetic analysis, corpus analysis and text mining have been applied to understanding the appeal, transmission and evolution of narratives in these genres. Each lecture has a related exercise which introduces these research techniques in more detail and provides the opportunity to use them in the coding or analysis of narratives.

To access the lectures: Click here or use the dropdown menu above under "Lectures."

A webinar by Joseph Stubbersfield associated with this module is available in the DySoC/NIMBioS 2020 Webinar Series on Cultural Evolution: Cognitive biases in folklore: From fairy tales to fake news.

Lecturers and module designers


The Neverending Story is one of a series of online teaching modules sponsored by the Cultural Evolution Society and the Center for the Dynamics of Social Complexity through the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation.

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