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Why do people fear spiders?

On the face of it people fear many things and do so without much rational basis. Far less than 1% of known spiders have a venomous bite, only a fraction of those species are in fact seriously dangerous, and barely a handful of the dangerous ones are at all aggressive or hard to avoid. Only a few of scorpion species are at all life threatening and none of them are aggressive. And of tens of thousands of species of spiders, not only are very few sufficiently venomous to pose any risk to humans, but most of those are so stubbornly unaggressive that it is very difficult even to tell which of those species pose any risk at all.

So the question arises: why are such creatures feared so widely (and accordingly persecuted so consistently)?

It is useful to consider separate categories of reasons, though in practice they combine. Categories include:

  1. Rational fear for material reasons.
    Some species of spiders certainly are dangerously venomous, and the bite of some species whose venom is not in itself very dangerous, often may inject bacteria that may definitely be dangerous, causing serious festering in necrotic conditions created by the cytotoxic venom.
  2. Rational fear in reaction to the threatening actions and appearance of some species, especially large species.
    Many spiders are aposematically coloured, typically in dramatic yellow- or red-and-black, or they have large and threatening jaws, often rendered more dramatic by their colouring or by surrounding patches of reddish hair or the like. In many species the aposematic colouring or generally threatening appearance is not at most times visible, but if such a spider is roughly handled or taken from its den, it will rear up and threateningly expose the patterns on its underside and around its jaws. Not all spiders with such patterns are actually dangerous, and in fact many such threats are empty, but few people have the training to know which species are harmless, so it would be unreasonable to blame them for their fears; they don’t know what it is that they don’t know, and usually don’t know whom to ask.
  3. Rational fear based on erroneous teaching and social attitudes.
    Most societies have established traditional views according to which spiders are nasty, evil, dangerous and so on. This is not limited to spiders of course; many other small creatures, such as small lizards or toads, are similarly feared, many of which never are in any way harmful or threatening at all. The irrationality of the basis that underlies such teaching is irrelevant; once they have been brought up to fear creatures of a given type, most people develop a strong phobia that is difficult to control and may require considerable assistance and treatment to overcome.
    This is not limited to  fear of spiders of course; thoughtless and irresponsible parents teach children to fear doctors, dentists, needles and all sorts of things that the youngsters really need support to deal with competently. At the same time such parents, lacking the necessary educational background of course, neglect to teach their children the rational way to deal with genuine threats. It is all part of the same type of problem: irresponsible neglect of education (either personal neglect by parents and teachers, or poor educational support by society) or simple lack of support of poor parents who cannot afford to be home, and lack the necessary education themselves.
    There is no easy way to deal with such problems; apart from the original fact of simple lack of education, the harm of bad education must be undone, and that is something that takes more than just telling the person that what he or she had been brought up to believe was all wrong.
  4. Related to the problems of bad teaching in general, there is the related problem of unconscious teaching of attitudes and of incidental instilling of attitudes by bad experiences. A bad fright, either by an accidental bite or hurt or screamed warnings and panics at the sight of spiders can cause a small child to grow up with a permanent dread. Such a person commonly has not idea of where the fear came from; “it always was dreadful!” Or “it is so ugly!” There are many variations. Persons who have learned the appeal of small, harmless creatures, especially when looked at closely or under magnification, have little idea of how ugly they can look to people who are do not share their familiarity and associations. Such is the power of unconscious social and peer pressures.
  5. Truly innate fears and phobias.
    This is a very difficult field and is particularly difficult to separate from some of the pressures applied in early childhood. Some psychologists, whether untaught, self-taught, or qualified, whether amateurs or professionals, do not believe that any such thing such as an innate or hereditary phobia exists. They insist on asserting, or at least leaning towards, the “tabula rasa” model of mental development. In this essay I reject that view, but it matters very little in practice, because the effect of an innate phobia is very similar to the undebatable importance of early training and social pressures. (Anyone interested in the subject might enjoy reading the book “The Blank Slate”, by Stephen Pinker.)
    Apparently innate fears take various forms in different people and tend to focus on types of perception rather than specific objects. For example, arachnophobia might be triggered by a sudden view from above of a large spider, thick-legged and with its legs spread widely. The same person might have no fear of a jumping spider that tends to move with its legs drawn in. Another person might just fear a spider with large, prominent, formidable looking fangs. Someone else might be terrified of the shape of a snake, whether coiled or rearing. Even if such a person has learned to manage his phobia, he will be very likely to react with panic if the stimulus is suddenly and unexpectedly sprung on him.

Any or all of these factors can play roles in unnecessary and in principle irrational fears of particular types of creatures. Individual people often do have phobias that most people, educated or not, would laugh at. One gets phobias of feathers and birds, worms, dogs, cats, diseases, the opposite sex or the same sex; it would be very difficult to think of anything that nobody grows up dreading nor grows into dreading. Nor would it always be easy to tell how any particular example of such a phobia happened to be innate or learnt.

However, the examples where the fear or disgust arose from early training or social custom, however regrettable they might be in any particular case, are in fact based on mechanisms extremely important in any social or partly social species. That is how the wisdom of the past is preserved and supports each new generation in dealing with a complex and dangerous world. It is a heritage that was purchased through the ages, at the cost of much suffering and death. Those that put their heritage to the best use were the ones that passed on the genes as well as their education. It is no good railing against the mechanism that passes on errors as well as prudence and wisdom; evolutionary pressures, whether genetic or social, are not precise, but they are implacable.

At the same time, it does not follow that nothing can be done or should be done. When we find that the genetic heritage has left us with inferior fruit or vegetables or cattle, then we can apply our own selection pressures and hybridisation, producing plant and animal stock of greater value to ourselves over remarkably short periods, sometimes just a few thousand years, sometimes just a few hundred, sometimes within a few decades. That is what people have been learning to call “genetic engineering”. Furthermore, as our skills increase we can increasingly apply direct changes to genomes, producing results that previously were barely imaginable even if affordable.

To treat heritable phobias by means of genetic engineering be sensible even if it were practical, but to work towards the proper education of people to make the most of our intellectual heritage and to correct errors and harmful developments where they have crept in would be in every way reasonable and valuable both to our people and the world we live in.

Author – Jon Richfield

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