Fear of spiders became part of our DNA during evolution, say scientists

Apr 14, 2015

Image credit: YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

By Sophie McIntyre

Arachnophobia could be a product of human evolution, according to new research.

Spiders presented such a great danger to humans during the early evolutionary stages that a fear of the species became part of our DNA.

In Africa, early in human evolution, those with a keen ability to spot the creatures outlived their less wary counterparts, according to The Sunday Times.

Joshua New of Columbia University in New York said:  “A number of spider species with potent, vertebrate-specific venoms populated Africa long before hominoids… and have co-existed there for tens of millions of years.”

“Humans were at perennial, unpredictable and significant risk of encountering highly venomous spiders in their ancestral environments.

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22 comments on “Fear of spiders became part of our DNA during evolution, say scientists

  • Spiders have always terrified the living daylights out of me. Snakes and rats never did. To me, snakes are quite handsome animals.

    You would think poison frogs should be scary but I just find them beautiful.

    Perhaps these phobias could be traced to where your ancestors lived.

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  • That might be interesting, and scientifically demonstratable, actually.

    I cannot understand how anyone could not be repulsed by the sight of a spider, even the small harmless ones.

    Yet these arachnophile FREAKS exist, and will happily pick them up like they’re kittens. I wouldn’t be jumping on chairs, mind you, but it’s definitely a phobia of mine. Same with heights, which is very common, but again some people are naturally comfortable, or so they claim.

    I am skeptical about that sort of genetic predisposition. RD explained a possible mechanism for that kind of hereditary behaviour, can’t remember what it was called.

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  • HOLY CRAP! Did you really have to put THAT picture to pop up? Then go to the source and find the same thing…….jeeez……..

    Right there is proof there is no god……………….

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  • I quite like spiders, and encourage them to hang about in corners of my greenhouses eating insect pests.
    They are rather mean critters and will eat each other if the meet up, so sometimes you can find a web has been taken over by a new occupant, while the previous owner is bundled up in storage an odd corner.

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  • With me it’s not so much spiders that I find scary but scorpions. The combination of poison stinger at the tip of their tail, their claws and the rapid speed at which they can move are what I find frightening. In contrast, I find hairy spiders are not as scary and snakes even less so even though they all tend to be poisonous.

    Those of our species who keep spiders, scorpions and snakes as pets may either have learnt to overcome their fears or, if the fear is innate as suggested, may lack the gene complex that codes for this instinctive fear (or have a gene complex that has a much reduced tendency to be expressed). If the latter, it could serve as evidence pointing to an actual loss or lessening of an instinct over time.

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  • Why would we have fear of spiders ingrained within our genes, if we can be taught to fear spiders (thus leaving much more room for more important information in both our genes and brains)?

    those with a keen ability to spot the creatures outlived their less wary counterparts

    Now this is a robinsonade if I have ever seen one. Humans do not live individually and let each other die in the way it is implied here. We live socially, and care for each others, so even if there was a genetic trait for arachnophobia, which seems quite improbable, we wouldn’t be selected for this trait.

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  • Heights. I am deathly afraid of heights. Yet I loved flying and spent a 31 year career with a major airline. (I can tell this now, since I retired many years ago) I also flew light planes and engine-less sailplanes and never had any fear.

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  • @OP – Spiders presented such a great danger to humans during the early evolutionary stages that a fear of the species became part of our DNA.

    Mmmmmm! I’m not so sure! This video suggests perhaps not – at least in some parts of the world.

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  • 14
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Why would we have fear of spiders ingrained within our genes, if we can be taught to fear spiders


    Personally I think that this story of evolutionary based fear is overblown. The vast majority of spiders are too small to be any kind of threat to humans. My opinion is that culture is the main culprit for this pathological fear of spiders: legends, movies and novels have depicted spiders as horrible monsters for centuries. I think this fear is instilled into us as children.

    People wo are afraid of small spiders is one of my pet peeves. The only thing I have to say to them is: try and imagine what YOU look like to that spider. You are basically a huge creature over 100 stories tall with massive limbs that can crush it with your little toe. You are scarier to that little guy than a T-Rex could ever be to a human being.

    So get a grip and crush a few or a few hundred of those things: you’ll be surprised at how empowering that can be.

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  • Arachnophobia could be a product of human evolution, according to new research.

    This reminds me of a spoof headline on the cover of National Lampoon Magazine: “At Last Science Tells Us Why People Fear Serial Killers”

    While we’re feasting on anecdotes, I might as well tell everyone that I’d be more terrified by the sudden appearance of a snake (or lizard) than a spider.

    Another factoid excavated from my memory of Psychology 101 recalls research showing that babies (8 to 12 months) exhibit an innate fear of heights.

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    I want to chuck into this discussion a theory of my own about spiders, evolution & gender. I realise that this theory is tangential to this thread, & I don’t know if it’s been tested. (Indeed, the theory may not even be mine. Maybe I came across it somewhere & forgot that I read it.) But I’d like to give it an airing, & this is as good a place as any.

    I begin with a curiosity. Consider for a moment a horse, a woman & a spider. The average horse is bigger than the average woman; the average woman is bigger than the average spider. So, obviously, the average horse could easily kill the average woman, & the average woman could easily kill the average spider (with the stamp of a heel or a handy rock).

    Given these power relations, how does it come about that many women like horses (at least, when they’re unthreatening) but are often afraid of spiders (even when the eight-legged ones are still)? I suspect the answer is to do with vision & evolution.

    (I should admit an assumption here: I assume that women tend to be more afraid of spiders than men. I realise that this may not have been tested.)

    When everyone lived round camp fires, men often went to hunt & women often looked after the hearth, themselves, their babies, other women, the babies of other women & any animals that they had. With the strongest away, the women felt vulnerable to attack from large animals & hostile tribes or even just strangers. In the absence of muscle power, they developed better peripheral vision, the better to see trouble as soon as it appeared. As soon as they saw trouble, they could alert other women; women could group together to repel the invader.

    (Indeed, today if a woman wants to check out a man or woman, she can do it with out anyone noticing. Whereas, if a man at a party checks out a woman or man, everyone in the room can see it.)

    This theory continues with the suggestion that the elaborate peripheral vision is defeated by the spider because of its size, speed & ability to hide. So, when many women meet spiders, the age-old defence mechanism is defeated. Consciously, the woman doesn’t know what’s going on, but, in a moment, flips into fear. Horses are easy to see coming; spiders aren’t. (And, as with spiders, so with snakes & other creepy crawlies.)

    Am I on to something?

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  • spiders, snakes & other creepy crawlies

    I think it has to do with food contamination – once in, damn near impossible to eradicate, hello hunger.

    women like horses

    Yes! Can’t explain the special bond, perhaps due to the fact that horses are very social animals (and in our minds, aesthetically pleasing).

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  • Bonnie,
    Thanks for yours.

    The food angle: I’ve never thought of that. Could be right. (And could there be, too, an instinct that creepy crawlies were dirty? Or does that idea not come into existence until, according to Wikipedia, the 17th century?)

    I’ve just realised that, by introducing horses into this discussion, I may be sparking off the familiar association between teenage females & horses. And, if so, that may get in the way of the theory. So maybe the discussion would be simpler if I pullrd out horses & put in cows.

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  • mulligan
    Apr 29, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Would you have examples of different cultural attitudes to spiders?

    There are certainly arachnophobes in some modern cultures, but the link I gave in this comment is the only example I know of, of people eating spiders.

    Other insects are used as food in Asian and some other countries. This is not very surprising when we bear in mind that insects are evolved from prawns.

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  • Ah, Alan, I’ve just watched the vid, & you’re right: our reactions to spiders are culturally governed, or, at least, largely so. So bang goes my theory.

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