Is our fear of certain animals evolutionary

I was watching the History channel a few days ago and someone said the fact that alot of our myths and folklores involve reptiles in some form is due to the fact that reptiles are what used to prey on our ancestors and we still have a knee jerk fear of them because of this.

This makes sense, and it also explains why people are so afraid of jungle cats like lions and tigers.

However is there any truth to it, or is it purely cultural? Sharks are not a threat from an evolutionary perspective but people still fear them. I don’t know if wolves were around when humans evolved, but dogs are evolved from wolves so we should be terrified of them.

Also, why are people so afraid of bugs like wasps or bees? Is there some evolutionary reason for this or is it all cultural?

I’d say Jaws has alot to do with that one. :smiley:

A few problems.

The first thing is that the only reptiles that preyed on our ancestors would have been crocodiles. And while they probably weren’t an insignificant cause of death it hardly warrants a fear of all reptiles given that they were only a threat in water. I could believe our species might develop a wariness around water if this were the case, but not a fear of reptiles generally. It becomes even more implausible when you realise that all HG groups will eat whatever reptiles that they can catch. Far from exhibiting any fear of snakes, lizards etc the primitive human condition is to be attracted to them.

Land reptiles only really began to prey on our direct ancestors after they reached Indonesia and Australia around 50, 000 years ago and encountered giant monitors and terrestrial crocodiles. Prior to that hominids had simply never encountered any reptiles large enough to prey on them. And there’s a reasonable chance that most people don’t actually have any ancestry that has ever been the prey for giant monitors.

Unless of course by ‘our ancestors’ you are referring to something small and furry that scuttled through he underbrush when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The trouble is that that is so long ago that there’s no plausible chance of any inherited memories of that sort being retained. While it’s true that those creatures were preyed upon by reptiles they were also preyed upon by other mammals, and birds, and fish, and spiders, and centipedes and pretty much anything else on the planet. Those were small mammals in a large world and were destined to end life as brief wet squeak. If we retained ancestral fears form that time period we’d be afraid of everything, including budgerigars.

Basically I can’t see any plausible way for this theory to produce a fear of big cats and reptiles without producing an equally large fear of ducks, rats and catfish. So no, it’s not even remotely plausible in any form that I can understand.

And it’s certainly primarily cultural. I’ve seen footage a little San girl, she looked about 10, encountering a snake and she showed no fear of it whatsoever, she promptly grabbed it by the tail and bashed its brains out with a stick for lunch. The same I suspect was true for all humans prior to the invention of agriculture. People would have been cautious of poisonous reptiles but there’s no evidence that reptiles in general were ever a source of fear.

For that matter for those of us in modern western societies that grew up with reptiles have no fear of them either. I personally have no particular fear of any reptile that can’t literally eat me whole and I can never recall ever having any fear of them. The same is true of bugs. I can’t say I have any real fear of wasps or bees. I’m cautious of them the same way I’m cautious of moving cars but I’m no more frightened of a bee than I am of crossing the road in heavy traffic. Is it really common for people to have a phobia of bees and wasps beyond being concerned because they can cause pain?

As for wolves, well we wouldn’t really have encountered them until we entered central Asia and Europe. However there were almost certainly other canids such as the African hunting dog where our immediate ancestors evolved, along with big cats, hyaena and so forth. However as with wolves these things won’t attack healthy humans. I suspect that once our ancestors leaned how to use tools as weapons they were simply never a threat and probably a potential food source. So that doesn’t really tell you much unless, once again, you want to go back in time to when we were all basically shrews.

And sharks certainly would have been athreat to our ancestors. Nobody is quite sure when hominids first started forgaing in water soucres but it’s was very likely to have been before our species evolved. Coatsal tribes would have been under constant threat of shark attack while even inland tribes would have had to contend with shark attack in the larger rivers and creeks. Most people don’t relaise that sharks commonly enter even fresh water and numerous shark attacks on people occur well inland every year.

Steven Pinker supports that we are evolutionarily wired to be scared of certain kinds of animals. Sorry my memory is not very clear on this. I seem to remember experiments that all children in all cultures have an instincitve fear of snakes.

I would like to see a cite for that. I did some googling and couldn’t find any actual reliable citations one way or the other. However, the more scientifically-oriented sites seemed to indicate that fear of snakes in humans is not innate. This is my own strong impression - fear of snakes is cultural, not innate. E. O. Wilson postulated that although fear of snakes is not in itself innate, we have a strong propensity to learn to fear them. However, I do not know what evidence he may have based this on.

In the apparent absence of evidence for humans having an innate fear of any animals, I beleive it’s all learned or cultural. I don’t see why we would have developed an innate fear of snakes, even poisonous ones, when such hazards would have been far less of a threat to our ancestors than big cats - which no one seems to think we have an innate fear of.

Susan Mineka ingeniously demonstrated that in at least some cases, fear response is a combination of innate and cultural influences.

Basically, she found out that a monkey raised in captivity would have no fear of snakes until it observed other monkeys freaking out at the sight of a snake. However, when the raised-in-captivity monkeys observed other monkeys freaking out at the sight of flowers (they had been conditioned), they merely looked at the other monkeys like they were nuts, and did not develop a flower phobia.

It seems that primates have latent “programs”, if you will, which require a social impetus to manifest.

More info:The Malicious Serpent
(warning: PDF)

This is probably going to be whisked off to GD or IMHO.

My take is that we probably all have an “evolutionary based” fear of large animals - large being as big if not bigger than our bodies. But pretty much everything else is cultural. And what large animals we don’t fear is also due to cultural experience.

Being a scuba diver is what brought this “large animal” theory to mind. As we’ve grown up, we’ve been exposed to “perspectives” of most land animals - large and small. But coverage of underwater creatures isn’t that extensive (we all “know” whales and dolphins are our “friends”, but that’s about it). So when I’ve encountered large creatures (big groupers, bumphead wrasse, and the mother of them all - whale sharks) immediately my heart skips a beat, and my breathing is increased. It takes some time to realize they are not malicious.

On the contrary, though, I think the statistics prove that most people’s fear of (land) animals has been “taught”. I do my best to try to present an opposing view to many misunderstood animals. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen parents squirm when the subject of something like bats comes up. And I always try to let the kids know that I find them cool and fascinating - and nothing to be afraid of. Unfortunately, these prejudiced views have been passed from generation to generation, and will take some work/education to undo.

I don’t see why. It should be possible to answer it in a factual manner. If there is no experimental evidence that humans have an innate fear of particular animals, and no real reason from evolutionary theory to expect that it be would so, I think we can probably dismiss the idea.

It is possible that we might have a general fear response to an unfamiliar large animal, but AFAIK that sort of thing has never been tested.

And what large animals we don’t fear is also due to cultural experience. ]/quote]

Do babies have an innate fear of cows, if the cow is not moving toward them in a threatening way? I suspect not - I don’t think we learn not to fear cows, but rather learn from others which animals to fear. And a generalized fear of unfamiliar large animals is likely to be learned or taught, as well.

I disagree. I suspect babies are afraid of cows until taught otherwise. A quick trip to a petting zoo should illustrate this. IMO, children’s natural response is to be scared of any previously unknown animal until they are taught not to fear it. Once, upon arriving at the home of friends, their toddler son was happy to see me but terified of the bicycle I was pushing through the door. He hid behind his mother’s legs and had to be reassured that it was just a big toy.

A man named Solomon Jones writes a column for the Philadelphia Weekly. When his wife became pregnant, the subjects of kids and fatherhood began to dominate the column. After his daughter was born, all the relatives came over to see her. When his next door neighbour, an elderly Jewish woman he views as a second mother, came back from vacation, they rushed over to see her. The baby was terrified of her. Nobody could figure out why a baby would be scared of such a sweet, caring woman until Solomon realized that his daughter had never seen a white person before. He and his wife had to teach her that this strange, pale individual was a friend and not to be scared of her.

I’m sorry that I don’t have a cite for this. In fact, I don’t even have a clear memory of the content. But, I read some speculation on the common fear of insects and spiders. Whoever it was - and I don’t think it was Steven Pinker - postulated that insects provoke disgust or antipathy in us because they are so totally different from us. Morphologically, four-legged creatures can be taken as a version of two-legged, two-armed creatures, e.g. us. And even two legged creatures such as birds give the impression of human-ness when they’re walking on the ground. And all of them have faces that very roughly mimic ours. I don’t remember how snakes were treated in this theory, but it may have been in this two-eyes, nose, mouth similarity. However, all bets are off when it comes to insects and spiders. They aren’t built like us. They don’t move like we do. Many don’t even have noticable faces. Some, despite their tiny size, display no fear. And, in general, the argument was that since they’re so different from us, we have no way to relate to them and consequently we fear them. They are truly aliens and we treat them as such. That’s about all I remember about it, but it makes more than a bit of sense to me. xo C.

Since when are dogs evolved from wolves? There wouldn’tbe any wolves stillaround then. Don’t you mean a common ancestor?

Since always.

Yes there would. Is Darwin’s Finch still around? He can give you a great long answer. Short answer-Just because a population of a species evolves into a new species does not mean that the original species becomes extinct.

This just indicates that babies are afraid of the unfamiliar, not that they are afraid of large animals per se. Large animals may be just a sub-class of the general category of unfamiliar things. I’m sure that many people could tell anecdotes of babies that were terrified by a small pull-toy untell they learned otherwise.

Why don’t we have such a phobia towards lobsters and shrimp, then? It sounds more like a rationalization of a learned cultural aversion. I am wondering, for example, if Australian aborigines or Khoi-san can be demonstrated to have any phobias about insects or spiders.

And, of course, I meant to say that our distaste of insects and spiders is therefore innate. We are, according to that theory, hard-wired to feel antipathy and even fear of them. That means that it is “evolutionary,” in the OP’s terminology. Does that automatic response confer some advantage to us? Or has it in the past promoted our continued existence? Maybe. I’m unaware of any beneficial relationship between humans and those creatures, although there are certainly advantages to be had in avoiding many of them. Yes, I know that bees make honey that we eat and that the insects pollinate the plants that provide our food, and so on. I’m only talking about the direct relationship between any two organisms - much in the context of the OP - and there don’t seem to be any that would promote our natural selection and survival, but several that would inhibit it. xo C.

Not sure if this is scientifically validated, but…

I have been told that if you show a baby a piece of paper with a large circle and eight arms coming off it, they will exhibit similar fear responses as they would to a real spider.

This works for children who’ve never come across a spider before.I have Steven Pinker’s book upstairs (Blank Slate, it’s called) so I’ll go see what he has to say.

I suppose I am the exception to the rule , when you get right down to it .

I was literally born with no innate fear of any animal I can think of . My parents were not Tarzan and Jane , I did not have the early exposure to anything beyond a couple family dogs and a cat . We lived in the city , and my mother was DEATHLY afraid of snakes until the day she died . But…

I grew up crazy about horses . A much larger animal I had no contact with , except on TV . And yet one of my first words was horse . I would approach any horse , pony , mule , cow or what-have-you without a second thought as soon as I could walk .

I have always loved snakes . Always . No fear at all . When I was as young as 2 or 3 , when asked what my favorite animals were , the answer was always horses and snakes :dubious: . How is THAT for a combination ?

I played with insects and spiders when I was a kid . Regularly . I would let spiders crawl on my open palm , trying not to giggle as their legs tickled me .

My reaction to zoo animals was never fear ; awe and respect , yes , but with a large measure of ‘awwwwwwwwww I wanna hug him’ . Still is , in fact .

Over the years , I have learned more respect for animals , but there is still no real fear there .

So I am either a freak of nature (which is entirely possible) or the fear of certain animals is a learned trait and not inherited (even tho THAT is hard for me to understand in my case too , since my mother did her level best to pound fear of everything but dogs into my head from birth…) .

The theory would have more credibility if there actually were any evidence that fear of insects and spiders is innate.

A lot of cultures today commonly use insects for food: locusts, termites, beetle larvae, etc. It is very likely that our more remote ancestors did too. Under natural conditions anybody having an innate aversion to insects would be depriving themselves of a potentially significant source of food. Such a trait would be highly maladaptive, and it is very unlikely it would have evolved.

That was part of my point. Other than falling and loud noises, and the unfamiliar, I don’t think I’ve seen evidence that babies are innately afraid of anything. This is why they are so hard to take care of.

OK, I guess I misunderstood what you were getting at, then.