Saturday, June 13, 2015

Arachne, Arachnophobia, Evolutionary History, and Hubris

One of the books that has been from shelf to shelf over the last thirty years is Primo Levi’s Other People’s Trades.  Levi was a Holocaust survivor and is known for his writing on that topic.  This isn’t that.  It is a collection of elegant essays on topics largely beyond his expertise but not outside his range of interests.  I love it because, like Levi, I find almost everything interesting. 
Tonight I read his essay on ‘The Fear of Spiders’.  He confesses to and describes his own arachnophobia and then considers some possible explanations for this common fear.  He easily disposes of a number of weak arguments.  Spiders are not crueler, hairy, uglier, or more vicious than any number of creatures that we admire or even love.  He seems to take more seriously the psychological argument that the spider wrapping its prey lovingly in silk before devouring it reminds us of the figure (common enough in story and song) of the evil mother. 
He offers his own explanations.  He thinks that the nearly universal and often false belief that all spiders are venomous is one part of the story.  The other is that spider webs are common reminders of decay.  Nothing says that a house or a room is dead as much as an abundance of cobwebs.  I find these arguments literarily elegant and evocative, but not much more plausible than the ones he rejects.  Rust and rot are signs of decay, but they do not inspire the same universal dread.  Wasps, bees, and stinging ants are venomous and they are feared, to be sure; however, they are far less commonly pressed into service as symbols of evil and I doubt that phobias about them are nearly as common. 
Here is yet another case where evolutionary thought deepens our understanding of our human psychological landscape in the direction of our history on this world.  When we inherit the fear of something it almost certain that it was something that threatened our ancestors and, this is very important, it was some danger that inherited fears can help us avoid.  Common phobias include fear of water, heights, and tight places, open spaces, but not tobacco, firearms, or cars.  The latter kill far more of us today but have not been around long enough to be selected for.  The former fears directed us efficiently away from things that might have killed us before we had time to mate or might have killed our children. 
If I am right that fear of spiders and, I would add, snakes is more common and more robust both in psychology and in myth, than fear of wasps, how should we explain that?  I suggest that the solution lies in largely in the direction of the threat.  Stinging insects are pretty good at advertising their presence and they come mostly from the air.  Like many wasps and bees, vipers often sport warming colors; however, they are also slither along low to the ground.  Our fear councils us to be on the lookout for them.  It councils us, as it does horses, to react to one under our feet by jumping about and stamping. 
The problem with spiders is that they sneak up on us, hide in places we are about sit, or slide our feet or bodies into.  For our ancestors, the bite of even an innocuous spider could be very serious.  Spiders can be hard to find but are easy to kill.  It was much easier for our ancestors to learn to kill any spider whenever it came too close than to learn which species is the more serious threat. 

Nothing in this explanation diminishes the literary power of the spider as Levi presents it.  On the contrary, to learn that our ancestors succeeded in becoming ancestors by fighting a war against spiders over hundreds of thousands of years puts extra legs, if you will, under the literary motif.  Gustave DorĂ©’s marvelous illustration of Arachne’s transformation refers to a Greek myth that warns against hubris.  Arachne was a brilliant weaver, having studied with Athena herself.  She became contemptuous of her divine teacher and as a result she entered a duel with the goddess.  Athena wove a tapestry displaying the glory of all the gods.  Arachne wove her own which displayed the gods as corrupt and as exploiters of mortals.  In anger, Athena transformed Arachne into the mother of all spiders.  Arachne would never stop weaving as a lesson to human beings.
That is a good lesson.  Armed with the deeper account of our fear of spiders that I have presented, we can see a theme that is present in the story but not as obvious as the general admonition to fear the gods.  Arachne is not only transformed into something that it is terrible to be.  She is transformed into something that is terrible to behold.  She is transformed into an enemy of those who remain human. 
Hubris, excessive pride in one’s own powers, does not only get someone in trouble with the gods.  It frequently makes them a threat to their fellow human beings.  A genius, brilliant in mind and robust in spirit, if she gives rein to her hubris, can become venomous.  That was, in other terms, Abraham Lincoln’s point in his Lyceum speech.  We need to be on the lookout for such creatures.  They are terrible.  That is what I managed to weave out of Arachne’s story, because Darwin taught me to look at the deep history of the fear of spiders. 


  1. In this study, ( scientists appear to prove that fear can be passed down through generations. What's interesting about this experiment is that fear is transferred - not only to descendants many generations down, but to the very next generation. If mice become instantly afraid of a cherry-blossom-like scent, why hasn't a fear of cars or tobacco be transferred to people living today from their parents or grandparents?

    Your warning about hubris and its monsters seems fair and right,but I can't help but sympathize with Arachne. It's hard not to when you believe in a free press. (Or a free loom!)

  2. You offer an example of Lamarckian inheritance. Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck (who family apparently thought highly of themselves) proposed a theory of inheritance by acquired characteristics. Why are giraffe's necks long? Because they are constantly stretching. For a long time, this was thought to have been disposed of by Darwin. Stretching the neck does not change the gonads; therefore, it cannot be heritable. Otherwise a weight lifter would have buff babies.

    Now it seems that some creatures do pass on traits in a Lamarckian fashion. In addition to the reference you provide, I understand that a mouse mother who lovingly tends to her offspring will produce daughters that do the same and vice verse. This seems to work over several generations.

    Physics has laws. Biology has generalizations with exceptions. I think that there are other cases of Lamarckian inheritance but I also understand that, so far, they are exceedingly rare. I don't know of any cases in humans, but we don't know what we don't know until we find it out.

    Just because organism X has trait Y doesn't mean that organism Z will have the same trait. I am indulging in pure speculation here, but a fear of some local stimulus (cherry-blossom scent) may be much more useful to mice than to humans. The one species is rather more limited in geographical range than the other. At any rate, this may be a trait limited to a small set of species. Bats can fly. No other mammal can do the same. Tough luck.

    For the most part, the inheritance of fear seems to work by Darwinian rules rather than Lamarckian ones. Chicks fear the shadow of a hawk because those that didn't got selected out of the gene pool, by hawks. Human mothers that feared spiders did a little better, over very long periods of time, in getting their children married off.

  3. Miranda: as for your second, more provocative point: I am less sympathetic to Arachne. I too am in favor of a free press and a free loom; however, I am not certain that the First Amendment binds Athena. Even if it does, the point of the story is that Arachne was acting out of hubris rather than a mere desire to express herself or create beauty. Instead of being grateful to Athena, from whose instruction she had benefited, she was insolent. There are problems with that attitude.

    I am reminded of the story of Galileo. If I get the story right, the Church tried to work with him but he told them to shove off. Its one thing to have the truth. Its another to decide when and where and how to speak it.

  4. Interesting! I did some reading on Lamarckian inheritance over the weekend. I can see why it would be an attractive theory. The idea that we might be able to choose some of the traits we passed on to future generations is sort of neat. I suspect, though, that if we were able to do that, we might end up with the sort of designer baby problem Fukuyama talked about in Our Posthuman Future, so maybe it's just as well that Lamarckian instances are rare. Your explanation makes sense to me. Thank you very much for your response.

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  6. Regarding Athena: I am certain that the first amendment would not bind her, as she was clearly not part of the American government. The principles behind it might still have applied, however, if human rights were bestowed on mortals by Zeus. In that case, Arachne would have been entitled to human rights (at least, she would have before she turned into a spider!) I will concede that Athena and Galileo behaved stupidly - but, being capable of both ignorance and stupidity myself, I still sympathize with them and I still think that what was done to both was unjust. Nevertheless, I do agree with you on two points. 1. Hubris is dangerous, whether the church or Athena were just or not. 2. Gratitude IS important - and I am grateful to you for taking the time to answer. Thank you!

  7. Thank you, Miranda. I thoroughly enjoy and profit from these exchanges. I am not sure what moral rules (if any) bind the daughter of Zeus. That is analogous to the problem of dirty hands, which I have been considering in a piece I have been writing. While I certainly prefer an absolutest position on free speech (no suppression on grounds of content), by the standards of the time, the Church was quite gentle with Galileo. He was forced to recant and was kept under house arrest for the rest of his life. However, he was also allowed to write and produced serious work extending his science.

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  9. Thank you, again, for taking the time to answer. I had not realized that the Church was so lenient with Galileo. I will have to read up on his later years and am looking forward to reading about the problem of dirty hands if it is discussed here.