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April 2015


The media in he last few days have had reports of a paper published by Columbia University, New York. This is a re-run of The old idea that we are all genetically programmed to be frightened of spiders has been raised yet again, this time by Columbia University, New York . This idea has been refuted any number of times and it is particularly depressing to see it given another run by a reputable organisation based on such poor science. To my mind this idea falls down for three main reasons

Firstly: If fear of spiders was genetically programmed in then all children would have a fear of spiders and this would be unlearned as some people got older. In fact this exactly the pattern that we do not see in dealing with arachnophobics. Generally young children show no fear and the phobia is a learned response as they get older.

Secondly: The phobic response which people exhibit (Freeze, fight or flight) makes no sense in dealing with a small crawling invertebrate. It does make sense in dealing with a large predator - actually the major threat to humans throughout history.

Thirdly: Spiders are not dangerous! I know some species can inflict a nasty bite but the number of deaths from spider bites is so insignificant in world terms that it is just about impossible to get statistics. There is no evidence that spiders have ever been a serious problem for primates. Indeed studies of primate groups in the wild (e.g. Goodall's studies of chimpanzees, Fossey's studies of gorillas and Cheny & Sefarth's studies of baboons ) show no deaths from spider bites.

The Columbia University group overcome this problem by stating that in man's earliest history more spiders were highly toxic and so posed a major threat. I can find no confirmation of this 'fact' from scientists who actually work in the fields of biology, palaeontology, etc. Science works by looking at facts and formulating an hypothesis to explain them and then test by experimentation and observation. It doesn't work by coming up with an idea and inventing 'facts' to match.

Is it too much to hope that we have heard the last of this nonsense idea? Probably not!