‘Innate’ fear of snakes?

Live Science has a recent piece, Why We Fear Snakes, written by Clara Moskowitz. I have to admit that, well, I hate this sort of thing for so many reasons that I hesitate to write. My problem with these accounts is with ‘innate’; I think the term is, generally, poorly defined, unprovable and unproven, sloppy, theoretically suspect, and freighted with so many dangerous implications that it gives me, for want of a better word, the heebie-jeebies.

Before I get too critical, however, it’s necessary to acknowledge that some of the assumptions I’ll critique may have, likely have, arisen in the translation of a complex research project into a few hundred words for a popular press account. God knows my own work has suffered when it’s been translated into popular formats (don’t even get started about a CNN special on race that I was interviewed for…). We’re encouraged to do outreach to the community, to put our specialties up on ‘expert’ databases and basically pimp ourselves for any positive reference, so we wind up bending over backwards to make our ideas accessible. This can lead us to stumble, especially in the view of a discipline that doesn’t share our concerns. For example, if I were to try to give an accessible account of my work, a neuroscientists would likely gag on some of the explanatory shortcuts. So some of the criticisms that I will level might be better applied to the science writer rather than the researchers; we’ll know when the research findings are eventually published. Caveats in place, on with it…

Apparently, the Psychology Department at the University of Virginia has a couple of scholars studying the ‘universal’ fear of snakes. The piece says what one might expect: ‘The researchers were inspired to investigate the fear of snakes when they thought about how universally people dislike the slithering legless lizards. “This feeling is really common,” [Vanessa] LoBue told LiveScience. “We don’t see snakes all the time. There’s really no reason for this overwhelming disgust or hatred of snakes.”‘ The researchers demonstrated this universal fear by showing that both adults and children ‘could detect images of snakes among a variety of non-threatening objects more quickly than they could pinpoint frogs, flowers or caterpillars.’ And the explanation is that an innate fear of snakes would have made humans more likely to survive in the wild.


Why does this stuff drive me nuts? Well, first of all, it’s evolutionary psychology’s typical modus operandi: notice something normative in your life, assume that it’s universal, and then make up an evolutionary ‘just so’ story that ‘explains’ one’s own normative construct. We can make them up for Western biases about female beauty, alleged age differences in ideal mates, obesity trends, etc. etc. A while back, I mentioned an evolutionary psychology bingo card Savage Minds posting that mocked these stories, using the example of ‘women’s love of pink things’ and a contrived story, but the master of attacking adaptationist ‘just-so’ stories was the late Stephen Jay Gould.

Although I love the University of Virginia (my alma mater) and the field of psychology (well, some of the time), I fear that the research team has done exactly what Gould cautioned against. One of the research team, professor Judy DeLoache tells the interviewer: ‘I have almost a phobia of snakes… When I see a picture of a snake, I’m like, “Oh my God, eew!” The reason we got into this research was because I’ve always been fascinated by how it is that people develop it. My intuition was that there was something that made me feel afraid of snakes early on. You react to them very early on.’ Do you?

In fact, the story goes on in a few paragraphs to contradict the assertion that a person reacts to snakes ‘very early on.’ As Moskowitz writes: ‘While babies and very young children do not usually fear snakes, they are unusually skilled at detecting them and show a predisposition to learn to fear snakes if they have bad experiences or even if they are exposed to negative portrayals of them in the media, the scientists found.’

Hold on, so very young children do not usually fear snakes but are ‘predisposed’ to detecting them? Although the interpretation of the research significance is that we have a ‘universal fear,’ in fact what the research showed is that we seem to be good at detecting snake shapes. The research team ‘showed adults and 3-year-old children images of a snake surrounded by objects of similar colors, such as frogs, caterpillars and flowers. Then they showed them pictures of a frog or a flower surrounded by snakes. Both groups were able to identify the hidden snake faster than the other hidden objects.’

I’m not convinced that this is a test of fear of snakes. It might be a test of perceptual salience of snake-shaped objects and much more complicated, non-linear objects. The ‘predisposition,’ as the researchers put it (again, it’s hard to know what they said and what the science writer got them to say in interview), may in fact be perceptual, a propensity may have a lot to do with the physical traits of snakes themselves (in fact, we also may find widespread fears of snake-like animals, because they have certain traits — I’m thinking of lizards, other reptiles, legless animals including insects…). Or it might have to do with the salience of shapes in the visual field. And, in addition, if you were going to program a human with an innate predisposition to detect snakes, wouldn’t it be better to have a tendency to detect the way that they move?

And then there’s the more general problem of adaptationist explanations; if it’s good for one alleged evolutionary ‘need,’ why didn’t it work for others? According to About.com (no authority, but easy to find), the ten most common phobias include snakes and spiders, as the team’s research suggests, but they also include heights, small spaces, dogs, thunder and lightening, injections, social situations, flying and dirt and germs. Other lists include fear of water (especially open water), public speaking, public transportation, tunnels, and bridges. Okay, so what is the evolutionary story we’re going to come up with to explain the widespread fear of injections, public transport, and bridges? Too many hypodermic needles, dangerous subways, or single span arches in the evolutionary environment? How about fear of public speaking or social situations? Maybe large groups attracted predators? And fear of water or dirt? This could post some problems for anyone living in by foraging, I would guess. I don’t mean to belittle the research, but the agenda cherry picks which phobias to focus on. If one is an adaptation, why aren’t the others?

Moreover, it leaves out the fact that we are NOT afraid of many of the really dangerous things out there. For example, some people are afraid of dogs; a large number of people, however, are deeply attached to these potentially dangerous carnivores and keep them around — there’s two of them sitting within easy striking range of me as I write this. Wild boars, hippopotami, elephants, blue-ringed octopi, box jellyfish, poison arrow frogs, even the platypus… they’re all pretty dangerous, and some may even have the ‘eew’ factor, but I don’t know if people have real full-blown phobias about them. In fact, the real killer animal out there is not poisonous snakes — mosquitos kill around 2 to 3 million people a year, so evolution has been really slack not giving us all a good, widespread mosquito phobia. But this pales in comparison to the most dangerous creatures to humans: other humans. (So perhaps fear of social situations is more adaptive than I was suggesting.) In other words, if one is going to argue that fear of snakes and spiders is an adaptation to the danger they posed, then explaining the absence of fear of other dangerous things gets complicated.

The next problem with the ‘fear of snakes’ as evolutionary adaptation argument is the universality problem: is fear of snakes in fact ‘universal’?  Well, it may be widespread, but there are people who keep snakes as pets, so whatever else we can say about those folks, they do seem to undermine a certain interpretation of ‘universal.’  This is a constant problem with ‘innate’ traits — what if someone doesn’t have them? Fear of snakes is not even universal in animals; as R. A. Hinde (1991) pointed out, monkeys raised in laboratories don’t demonstrate a fear of snakes.  And living in Australia, I know that not everyone is ‘afraid’ of snakes in an identical, universal sense. Although we’re surrounded by some of the more poisonous snakes on the planet, my neighbors and I have discussions about which snakes really need to be killed and which ones should actually be left alone because, although they are poisonous, they seem to keep away even more poisonous, more aggressive ones because some snakes are territorial (yeah… I’m still not so sure about that one, but I believe in trusting local knowledge).

The final problem that ‘innate’ brings up is the question of the mechanism that produced the trait. In much of the discussion, there’s an assumption that there must be a ‘gene for’ something if it is ‘universal’ and ‘innate’ (although I find no evidence of genetic explanations in the fear of snakes story). In fact, there’s never much discussion of the actual mechanism that might turn an alleged gene into an innate trait. What sort of protein might produce fear of snakes? What parts of the brain would it interact with? Do we see any mutations of it that produce other similar phenomena? In other words, there’s a ‘black boxing’ of mechanisms, an unwillingness to think about how the trait might actually arise in a developmental context or function in an organism.

In fact, Hinde’s approach to fear of snakes is far more measured than DeLoache and LoBue, even using some of the same terms (like ‘predisposition’) and he doesn’t rely quite so much on the idea that evolution programmed us with some sort of innate fear (that some people don’t seem to demonstrate). Hinde argues that humans are ‘predisposed to acquire a fear of snakes,’ not that such a fear is inherent in being human: ‘Anecdotal evidence suggests that the extent ofthe fear shown is much influenced by social referencing – the child looks at others, and especially at a trusted other, and models his or her response to the situation according to the response of that other.’

‘Predisposition’ is a vague term, a lot less interesting in a short account than something described as ‘innate’ or ‘universal.’ But it’s also an evidence-based term, one that notices the exceptions and variations in people’s attitudes toward snakes. An account of an ‘innate’ tendency is quick and dirty, turning observations of behavior into putative ‘gene’ or some innate essence and linking them both to an evolutionary ‘explanation’ which is untestable but plausible. Snakes are dangerous; we tend to fear them (though not always); so we must have some essential part of us that produces this fear (although we can’t identify that part or explain how it works). A more complex, dynamic account of how fear might arise, taking into account factors like the material quality of snakes, perceptual dynamics, and social reinforcement, won’t be as easy to fit in a short article, but it has the advantage of better accounting for the variations, the people who aren’t afraid, and a host of other factors that the ‘innate-ist’ account has to simply ignore.

References
Hinde, R. A. 1991. A Biologist Looks at Anthropology. Man (New Series) 26(4): 583-608.

13 thoughts on “‘Innate’ fear of snakes?

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  4. I think I have discovered the reason for the ‘universal’ fear of snakes.

    It is quite simple really: throughout history children were brought up by disciplinarian parents; we have abundant historical evidence for this such as ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’; children were often beaten mercilessly with long flexible canes, cylindrical in shape, of a certain diameter and length, horribly scorching on impact and having a certain resemblance to some elongated slithering animals. The cane and the snake thus became inseparable and transmutable in the juvenile mind, and voila! therein is your basis for this universal phobia.

  5. “Okay, so what is the evolutionary story we’re going to come up with to explain the widespread fear of injections, public transport, and bridges? Too many hypodermic needles, dangerous subways, or single span arches in the evolutionary environment?”

    I’d guess at

    – injections: fear of pain
    – public transport: close proximity to others, disease spreading
    – bridges: those who had a fear of height survived, those who didn’t died pretty quickly.

  6. Sorry, Tom. That doesn’t work. If we pass down a fear of snakes because we or our parents were caned, why isn’t there an equal number of people who are afraid of canes?

  7. Well, Stephen Pinker’s how the mind works has convinced me about evolutionary psychology. The fact that you are stating that things “drive you nuts” underminds your own bias. However, you might be right and some of the points you make are valid. However, can you suggests a test to “disprove” the conncept of innateness or predisposition? I think the innaters have done a decent job with their hypothesis. All you have done is point fingers. Let’s see you do some real research.

  8. Fully agree on use of word ‘innate’. I would add ‘instinct’ to the list of words that are flagrantly misused. I wrote Stephen Pinker about his use of instinct and he had no rational reply. “On well, you know what I mean”. If you say things like that you aren’t scientific AT ALL.

    There are only two experimentally and eimpirically established fears: loud noises- loss of support (called falling).

    william f wallace, ph. d. experimental psychology
    brandon ms

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  10. “notice something normative in your life, assume that it’s universal, and then make up an evolutionary ‘just so’ story that ‘explains’ one’s own normative construct.”
    You’re missing the intermediate stage which involves massive cross-cultural study to determine whether “one’s own normative construct” is parochial or universal. David Buss’s famous study of mate preferences spanned 37 different cultures, for instance. For snakes and other cultural universals, the list below is a good place to start (although it was compiled two decades ago).

    http://condor.depaul.edu/mfiddler/hyphen/humunivers.htm

    Observations and experiments involving other primates are also useful– chimpanzees and monkeys also appear innately predisposed to fear snakes, which makes it even more implausible that ophidiophobia is purely a product of culture.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3592370/You-cant-teach-a-monkey-to-fear-a-flower.html

    “Okay, so what is the evolutionary story we’re going to come up with to explain the widespread fear of injections, public transport, and bridges?”
    Injections involve inserting foreign objects beneath your skin, which would have created a serious risk of infection before the advent of sterilization procedures and antibiotics. Public transport combines claustrophobia and social phobia, and the fear of bridges is the fear of heights in all but name. Needless to say, I would want to see cross-cultural and primates studies in conjunction with experimental evidence before signing off on an of these as adaptations, but they are certainly plausible candidates to have been targeted by selection in our ancestral environments. How long do you think that an organism which had no trepidation about teetering on the edge of cliffs would last? Note the strange mismatch between the fears on the list and actual danger posed to modern humans– phobias of guns and nuclear war are vanishingly rare in comparison.

    It’s also important to recognize that you’re setting an impossible standard. On the one hand, if evolutionary psychologists posit too many adaptations, you accuse them of genetic determinism and trying to explain all of the diverse phenomena of human life in terms of biology alone. On the other hand, wherever they don’t posit an adaptation, you demand to know what makes this particular trait different. Both of these criticisms are misplaced, but the two together are just incoherent. “You’re assigning too large a role to biology. Moreover, why aren’t you assigning a larger role?”

    “For example, some people are afraid of dogs; a large number of people, however, are deeply attached to these potentially dangerous carnivores and keep them around”
    Affection for familiar dogs is also a plausible candidate to have been acted on by selection because of their utility in hunting, violence, and pest control. More importantly, though, you’re wrong in the assumption that just because something is innate it is also immutable. Darwin, in the Descent of Man, gives the wonderful example of nesting birds which abandon their eggs and chicks to die in order to migrate. Here we have two competing instincts, one of which must give way. The human is designed in part for associative and cultural learning, which can certainly overpower genetic predispositions under the right circumstances.

    “mosquitos kill around 2 to 3 million people a year, so evolution has been really slack not giving us all a good, widespread mosquito phobia.”
    Mosquitoes are pretty much impossible to avoid no matter how diligent you are. A phobia of them would be seriously debilitating. Mosquitoes also routinely prey on humans, unlike snakes or spiders, which means they may have evolved mechanisms that make it difficult for large terrestrial mammals to detect them.

    “What sort of protein might produce fear of snakes? What parts of the brain would it interact with?”
    What sort of protein might induce a bird to tend its chicks, or migrate to the same location at the same time every year? What part of the brain would it interact with? We don’t know enough about how genes affect behavior to answer questions of this sort, but that does not prevent us from inferring innateness when the evidence is otherwise sufficient. Or do you think that bird migration and chick-rearing are neither innate nor adaptive?

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  12. If a trait shows consistently throughout human cultures, it is only reasonable that it would be investigated by evolutionary psychology. Its conclusions are by nature more or less speculative, because of course they cannot be tested like those of the hard sciences, but still ar euseful. The alternative is to think of a human as a tabula rasa, which has been disproven.
    If fear of snakes is nearly universal – it appears even in scandinavian mythology, where the danger of snakes is low, and even in Madagascar, where no venomous snakes are found -, then it is very probable that is an innate trait, or, to be less extreme, an innate predisposition. Similarly other common phobias can be easily explained by evolutionary rationales.
    Fear of injections: reminds stings of dangerous arthropods like scorpions, also fear of foreign invasion to the body.
    Fear of public transport: Proximity to many unknown people with unknown intentions, also might remind mass transport of war captives by the victorious tribe.
    Fear of public speaking: Basically fear of any negative consequences from following one’s words, fear to take responsibility of what is said.
    etc.
    Mentioning lizards on your article, I wondr also why many people fear lizards, insects, other arthropods, or even small mammals. Surely most of them are not dangerous. Perhapse they could signify spoilt food or a forgotten decomposing baby. That explains also why women fear them much more than men. Men would have eaten them as snacks during the hunting trip, while women would get alarmed if the storage baskets or the crib got teaming with them.
    Mosquitos might kill a lot of people, but they do it by indirect ways, so it is much more difficult for evolution to protect us. A mosquito won’t kill you when it bites you.
    Yes, many people have pet snakes nowadays, but notice that snake keepers are concentrated in the most developed, rationalistic parts of the world. You won’t find any snake keepers in New Guinea for example, and it is still rare to find any in more affluent parts of the developing world, like Pakistan. Apart from pet keepers, historically there were people who kept snakes as a status or as a sacred symbol, and unfortunately today there are people who get pet snakes for the wrong reasons, e.g. to show off etc. People many times consciously overcome their fears to raise their status and prestige over the common folk, so that isn’t completely unexpected. Still, keeping pet snakes doesn’t disprove the finding that fear of snakes has an innate predisposition. From my own experience, one needs many repeted positive experiences with snakes to start thinking about purchasing one or working with them, while on the opposite, a single negative experience with snakes at a young age can scar a person for life.
    When we talk about complex behaiviors, like fear of snakes, we talk about polygenic traits that interact with the environment in complicated ways. That is, a snake-fearing gene or protein will never be found.
    ps. I thought that in modern Australia people’s relationship with wildlife is more based on fact and reason, ie rarely people there kill snakes. Was I wrong?

  13. This article was excellent. It brought up many points that reveal the notion of a universal and innate fear of snakes to be problematic when explained by evolutionary psychologists. I strongly wish more people would think like this author. There needs to be more critical thinking like this in the world. Anyway, if anyone ever wants to get an eye-opening view into how acquisition of fear of snakes works in chimpanzees, consult evolutionary biologist and author, Matt Ridley. It will blow your mind. His books are the best. I especially recommend The Agile Gene: How Nature Turns On Nurture.

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