#FolkloreThursday: The Devolutionary Premise

#FolkloreThursday: The Devolutionary Premise June 22, 2017

Where does folklore come from? And where does it go? The devolutionary premise represents one attempt to answer these questions, but it’s pretty biased.

Fossilized ammonites. Public domain photo from Pixabay.
Fossilized ammonites. Public domain photo from Pixabay.

While folklorists today aren’t all that concerned with origins, that’s not true of our past. We used to rigorously debate how, when, where, and why folklore originated, and we had theories to help explain it. Put briefly, folklore is NOT just fossilized (elite) culture.

I’ve already described the concept of unlinear evolution, or the notion that every society ascends the same ladder of the stages of civilization. Similarly hierarchical and problematic is the devolutionary premise of folklore.

As in many arenas, Alan Dundes has done pioneering work here. He wrote:

The most common devolutionary notion is that folklore decays through time. Another notion is that folklore “runs down” by moving from “higher” to “lower” strata of society. (6)

Among other examples, we see this in the theory of gesunkenes Kulturgut, promoted by Hans Naumann, which claimed that social elites were the creators of expressive culture, which from there filtered down to lower strata (usually in a corrupted or polluted form). The Grimms believed that many folktales were incomplete, corrupted myth texts. Additionally, the widely held idea that the “original” version of a text is the fullest and most complete version has tinges of devolutionary premise to it.

To relate back to a previous #FolkloreThursday post, Dundes points out that the devolutionary premise is evident in Axel Olrik’s epic laws of folk narrative, writing:

Even Olrik’s so-called epic laws of folklore were presumed to weaken in time. Olrik suggested, for example, that the law of the number three “gradually succumbs to intellectual demands for greater realism.” (10)

Similarly, the myth-ritual theory is one expression of the devolutionary premise, and its hold on people’s imaginations remains quite strong (as evidenced by its appearance in literature, I would argue).

Dundes mentions E. B. Tylor as another early scholar who promoted the devolutionary premise, though not always explicitly, writing:

The association of folklore with the past, glorious or not, continued. Progress meant leaving the past behind. From this perspective, the noble savage and the equally noble peasant – folkloristically speaking – were destined to lose their folklore as they marched ineffably toward civilization. Thus it was not a matter of the evolution of folklore; it was more a matter of the evolution out of folklore. This may best be seen in the work of Tylor who in adamantly opposing rigid degenerative theories definitely championed unilinear cultural evolution. (12)

This idea is still alive and kicking. If you’ve heard of cultures evolving beyond certain outdated or even “primitive” beliefs, you’ve encountered the evolutionary take on the devolutionary premise. And this has series implications for our discipline, because if folklore’s always dying out, will we as folklorists have jobs a few decades from now?

I’m fortunate to have studied under Dundes, becauseas he constantly reminded his students, we are all part of the folk, and hence we all have folklore. Once you move the definition of “folk” away from antiquated peasant or rural group identities, you arrive at a more expansive definition of folklore that is constantly developing and updating.

So, no, folklorists won’t be out of a job anytime soon, despite the prevalence of the devolutionary premise. In fact, it’s in all of our best interests to combat it, not just to keep folklorists working but also to assert a more accurate view of culture that’s not strictly hierarchical.



Dundes, Alan. “The Devolutionary Premise in Folklore Theory.” Journal of the Folklore Institute 6.1 (1969): 5-19.

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