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Afraid of Spiders? Blame Your Genes!


Here's John Goodman in the 1990 movie Arachnophobia. Because, you know, posting a picture of a spider in a post about people who are afraid of spiders is just cruel.

If you're afraid of spiders, don't blame yourself or your upbringings. Blame evolution instead!

A new study by Joshua New of Barnard College, Columbia University and Tamsin German of University of California Santa Barbara suggests that "spiders have posed such specific and immediate threats" to our evolutionary ancestors that our visual system has developed a mechanism to rapidly identify images of spiders.

In the study, to be published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, New showed images of spiders and other modern threats like hypodermic needles, as well as other animals like houseflies to 252 people. Most spotted the spiders much more rapidly.

"This demonstrates that some evolutionary-relevant threats are highly-specified and can evoke what is perhaps best termed 'reflexibe awareness': an immediate and elaborated perception sufficient to guide an adaptive behavioral response," New added.

"Humans were at perennial, unpredictable and significant risk of encountering highly venomous spiders in their ancestral environments," New said to The Sunday Times, "“Even when not fatal, a black widow spider bite in the ancestral world could leave one incapacitated for days or even weeks, terribly exposed to dangers. Detection, therefore, is the critical arbiter of success in such encounters — any improvements to the sensitivity, vigilance, reliability and speed of faculties for their detection would have been of significant selective advantage."

So the next time a spider give you the ooies, you can blame your genes.


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I like spiders. My sister is terrified of them. I find it hard to believe that there is one specifically gene responsible for a fear of spiders, and that she has it and I don't.
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Some caveats to this particular article:

1. While the evolutionary origins of countless forms of behavior are a fascinating subject, the debate over the fear of spiders or snakes has been going on for decades, and will still go on for a while longer. At a very young age, children learn to take their cue from their parents, and by adulthood it's difficult to establish whether a reaction is 'inherent' or 'cultured.' In some remote South American tribes, children hunt and eat spiders. Thus, are they conditioned to ignore the inherent threat reaction, or did they not have it in the first place? Are there genetic 'strains' that reflect whether someone is afraid of spiders or snakes? There's a lot of work yet to be done.

2. The definition of a phobia is an irrational fear - as in, it doesn't make sense and the reaction is out of proportion to the danger. The important part is recognizing this. Through arachnophobia, anyone might jump when suddenly confronted with a spider, especially when it's walking on them. But to purposefully seek out and kill all spider species (or snakes, or rats, or whatever) - that's a considered action without a rational basis, leaving behind phobia and bordering on kneejerk justification - most species are harmless, and even the potentially dangerous ones require some specific circumstances to expose oneself to danger. Driving down the highway is hundreds of times more dangerous in most of the world, but few people freak out over that. And even phobias can be conditioned away. It helps a lot to recognize what a pointless reaction to an exceedingly minimal threat is, rather than enabling it.
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