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 Doré’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.