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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide