Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why arachnophobia instead of amaxophobia?

As a follow-up thought to a previous post about spiders, I wonder why they strike so much fear into so many people. In terms of posing a danger to humans, mosquitoes present the greatest bug threat (due to being malaria agents), followed by wasps.

Bees and wasps are hardly a legitimate reason for anxiety. The numbers are hard to come by, but we're talking numbers in the hundreds worldwide, mostly by people stirring up nests. The numbers for arachnids are even lower. By contrast, more than 42,000 people die in automobile accidents each year in the US alone.

Humans haven't had enough time to evolve to the dangers associated with new technologies. Not just cars but also in areas like food consumption, where there is little innate aversion to eating bacon and sausage every morning for breakfast. Meanwhile, things that were once threatening but have become marginalized due to an end of the agrarian way of life and modern infrastructure still cause an inordinate amount of fear. We don't tend to think that getting in the car to go grab a Big Mac presents an exponentially greater threat to our well-being than that eight-legged thing zipping across the living room floor does.

I often get anxious when I go swimming in a lake alone, even though the only things that are even a remote threat are water moccasins. Instinctually, it's good that I'm afraid of splashing around in murky water. If instead of a cow lake in Kansas I was wading through the Nile, that fear would be useful.

Why, though, is arachnophobia so prevalent, while ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) or apiphobia (fear of bees) are not so familiar? Is that silly movie that came out in 1990 all to blame?

It probably didn't help. Paul Hillyard, author of several books about spiders, reports that in the fifties a study of 18,000 children found snakes to be the most feared animal, followed by spiders. In the eighties, rats had taken the top spot but spiders remained in second. Now the arachnids have the crown.

Shifting at the apex may be culturally-inspired, but spiders have consistently remained near the top. Relative to the rest of the mammalian world, vision is a human sensory advantage. Preempt us there, and we're freaked out.

Unlike wasps, rats, or snakes, which are buzzing around sporadically, scurrying away, or slithering along when they're seen for the first time, spiders, especially hunters, are stationary and seem to be staring at us when we first notice them. As long as you stay put, so do they. Then you move, and they zip with alacrity along the ground or up the wall. That they appear to be cognizant of what we're doing more than most other frightening critters do adds to the fear they inspire. Three or four pairs of eyes are a little tough to stomach, too.


MensaRefugee said...

"In terms of posing a danger to humans, mosquitoes present the greatest bug threat"

Maybe its because an instinctual non-intellectual response is worthless against mosquitos, while getting away from a spider has direct survival value.

I mean...a spider bites = poison = death = if we are afraid we run and live.

A mosquito bites but we cant run, because they are everywhere all the time = no use of a instinctual fear. Only way to combat mosquitos = brainpower based responses like DDT and draining swamps or covering water surfaces = all too complex to be reliably used on the brute force level of instinct.

Mensarefugee said...

Doncha just love ready-made 'evolution' explains everything answers? XD

agnostic said...

Mosquitoes spreading falciparum malaria is a very recent event, probably within the past 5000 years. Large parts of the world that we inhabited after leaving Africa weren't plagued by mosquitoes -- anywhere far from the Equator or at high elevation or both.

So, they've been a huge selection pressure, but only in isolated areas of the world, and only for about 5000 years.

Before that, it was probably generic "creepy crawlies" that plagued us. I get freaked out as much by camel crickets as by spiders, even though camel crickets are pretty harmless. A broad-brush bias against creepy crawlies is enough to keep us away from such things; it doesn't have to focus on spiders in particular.