Why are we afraid of spiders?

There are two competing theories.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

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.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Why are we so afraid of spiders – and has it always been this way? Photo: Getty
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Why a new Keith Richards documentary doesn't give enough satisfaction

I wonder whether Julien Temple is stitching up Richards in his documentary The Origin of the Species.

As we sink down into the dog days of summer, something weird appears to have happened to BBC2. Boy, does it reek of testosterone – and that’s even before we get to Louis XIV’s underpants (yes, unbelievably, the first series of Versailles is still not over). It’s the television equivalent of a potting shed, complete with leaky armchair and battered record player: its schedule last week included, among other manly treats, Gregg Wallace touring a cereal factory, Roald Dahl talking about an old mate who made model aeroplanes, and Keith Richards describing his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Dartford Scouts (“Suddenly, I was a patrol leader . . . I could get the other cats into it!”). I kept thinking of Charlotte Moore, the executive who now runs both BBC1 and BBC2. What on earth is she thinking? Doesn’t she want to rush around the place, squirting air freshener and opening windows?

I’ll spare you the delights of Wallace, who has unaccountably been given a series called Inside the Factory in which, over the course of six hour-long episodes, he gets to find out how various things are made. Imagine the treatment he usually reserves for a good meringue on MasterChef directed at a conveyor belt and you’ll have some idea of the patronising tedium involved. I’ll also move pretty swiftly through The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl (23 July, 8pm), which was basically Jackanory for grown-ups, narrated by Robert Lindsay, who read extracts from Dahl’s autobiography, Going Solo, in a voice I can only describe as the full spiced ham. I wasn’t after a hatchet job; I love Dahl as much as the next fortysomething, brought up to believe that in Fantastic Mr Fox and Danny the Champion of the World you will find all the rules necessary for living. But nor was I in the market for this kind of unmediated hagiography, a portrait Dahl himself – who thought nice people rather boring, and vicious ones endlessly fascinating – would doubtless have despised.

No, let’s head instead straight to the hard stuff, by which I mean to Keith Richards: the Origin of the Species, in which the director Julien Temple focused perhaps just a little too closely on the guitarist’s oh-so-English childhood (the film concentrates exclusively on the years 1943-62). Poor Keef. He’s spent so long trying to be cool, he can’t remember how to be anything else. And so it was that we were treated to the weird sight of a 72-year-old man, wearing a range of headbands, talking about rationing, council houses and, yes, the Scouts (apparently, he got loads of badges) in the kind of language last heard in an airless teepee at the Esalen Institute, Big Sur, in about 1969. “I can’t say I had any real affection for the joint,” he said of Dartford, the town where he grew up, and to whose determination to charge a toll for crossing its bridge over the Thames he apparently takes exception (“a stick-up joint”). Woo! Taxing road users. Rock’n’roll.

Was Temple trying very subtly to stitch up Richards, or was this Open University-style assemblage of black-and-white newsreel and interviews a genuine, even reverential, attempt to place a so-called genius in context? Knowing Temple’s other work (last year, he made a film about Wilko Johnson in which he presented the Dr Feelgood guitarist as the seer of Canvey Island), I feel it must surely have been the latter – and yet, I still wonder . . . That title: it’s so appropriately (sarcastically?) Darwinian, given what we know of the Stones’ politics, their restless quest to go on – and on – making money. Survival of the fittest, and all that. Deep into the film, Richards complained about the rise of advertising in the Sixties. “Wanty, wanty!” he said, talking disdainfully of Daz and capitalism. This, I felt, was a bit rich, coming from him. At other moments, though, there was something elegiac in his tone, a dolefulness that cut through the enamelled rock-star-speak. A white mare on a bomb site; a dead tramp in a pillbox; the day sweets came off the ration; the day his voice broke and he could no longer remain a member of the school choir (“Here’s the pink slip, man!”). As the titles rolled, movie reels flickered over his face, eerily. A study in the past: granite, lit from below.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue