Why are we afraid of spiders?

There are two competing theories.

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When Ron Weasley was a child, he reveals in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, his brothers Fred and George magically transformed his teddy bear into a giant spider, thus triggering in their younger sibling a life-long and totally understandable fear of spiders. What’s harder to comprehend is that one in three (Muggle) women and one in four men have arachnophobia – even though none of them has witnessed the transformation of a favorite toy into an oversized arachnid, and most have never had a traumatic encounter with a spider (one study found that out of 118 adults with a fear of spiders, only eight had ever had a “traumatic” experience involving spiders).

Myths and misconceptions about spiders abound despite the fact that, with the exception of a few species, they’re basically harmless. In a study of 200 elementary-school children, 62 percent indicated that they believed spiders are dangerous to humans, especially when humans are asleep; 72 percent thought – wrongly – that tarantula bites could be fatal. Fear of spiders is so severe today that mere depictions of them on TV can provoke anxiety in viewers. Did our ancestors have the same reaction to representations of spiders on rock art? In December, archaeologists working in Egypt’s western desert discovered our first example of spiders on rock art in the entire Old World. Based on nearby finds, they estimate that the spiders date to about 4,000 B.C. How did our ancestors feel about spiders? Why are we so afraid of spiders – and has it always been this way?

One of the most widely cited explanations for our fear of spiders, put forth by psychologist Martin Seligman in 1971, is the “hypothesis of biological preparedness.” According to this theory, humans developed an aversion to spiders because at some point in our history, spiders presented a real threat to our ancestors. Different strains of this theory have also been used to explain fears of snakes, darkness, and heights – all of which clearly did pose problems for our ancestors, and can be pretty healthy fears even today.

Slovakian biologist Pavol Prokop found further support for the evolutionary hypothesis in a comparison of high school students’ attitudes toward spiders in Slovakia and South Africa. When he surveyed 300 high school students in each country, he found that South Africans admitted a greater fear of spiders. This makes sense in light of the biological preparedness hypothesis: South Africa is home to more poisonous spiders than Europe.

Other researchers, however, have argued that the fear of spiders has a cultural origin. When Graham Davey, then a psychologist at London’s City University, surveyed 260 British adults on their attitudes towards different animals, he found that people who are afraid of spiders are also more likely to fear animals such as cockroaches, snails and slugs. None of these animals is predatory, but they all have one thing in common: They evoke disgust. Davey believes there is a single variable, “disgust sensitivity,” underlying all these fears – and that it’s cultural, not evolutionary. “It is unlikely that this single underlying factor is an evolutionary predisposition to fear either venomous or harmful animals, because it is difficult to conceive of the selection pressures that would have selected for fear of some of the animals in this covarying group," wrote Davey. “It is unlikely that our ancestors ever had to avoid packs of predatory slugs or snails.”

Davey suggests three ways these animals could have taken on their “disgust-evoking status”: by being associated with the spread of disease (like rats); by having features that resemble things associated with disease, like mucus (slugs); or by being associated with dirt or rotten food (maggots). The historical association between spiders and disease, according to Davey, dates back to the Middle Ages:

In most of Europe during the Middle Ages, spiders were considered a source of contamination that absorbed poisons in their environments (e.g. from plants). Any food which had come into contact with a spider was considered infected. Similarly, if a spider fell into water that water was then held to be poisoned (Renner, 1990). In Central Europe during the Great Plagues, spiders were seen as harbingers of the plague and death… Until the late seventeenth century many European spiders were thought to be ‘poisonous’ in the sense that their bites caused a variety of illnesses.

And though fear of spiders is widespread, it’s hardly universal. In some African cultures, the spider is honored as a wise creature; in Ashanti cosmology, the god Anansi sometimes takes the form of a spider. In parts of Indo-China and the Caribbean, spiders are traditionally eaten as a delicacy, and Hindus in eastern Bengal even consider them a sign of good luck.

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Why are we so afraid of spiders – and has it always been this way? Photo: Getty
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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State