Dr. Beetle, an anonymous biologist, has many writings against the quack science evolutionary psychology, but I thought this one was particularly interesting: Fear of spiders not detected in flies! A simple web search shows you how ingrained the belief that fear of spiders is evolutionary is amongst the pop-science crowd, and Dr. Beetle neatly disproves this belief. Like most issues of behavior, it is actually a social construct.
The strongest arachnophobia and fear began in northern Europe, where there was the least threat. Surely this suggests the cause of the fear rode on the back of urbanisation, anthroprudism (more beetle), sterility of mind, and estrangement to insects.
Most indigenous cultures had little or no fear of spiders. The fear is also less common in rural communities than for city dwellers. Some such as the Piaroa Indians of Venezuela happily catch, handle and eat tarantulas. Similarly, a number of tribes from Papua New Guinea like to eat spiders (Paul Ehrlich 2000 page 372, note 116). Similarly, tarantulas are often cooked and eaten in Cambodia. One older Hindu ritual is said to have involved throwing spiders about the bride, like confetti. Indians of Michoacan (Mexico) gathered and used the social spider Mallos gregalis around their abode as natural fly traps. An endearing term originating in Europe for the mass of spiderling threads sometimes seen floating or caught on shrubs during their dispersal, is gossamer.
Studies demonstrating fears and phobias in western students and populations are hardly going to be able to separate primal behaviour from the modern fashion of loathing spiders. The learnt fear is much more common in women than men, as it has become an encouraged method for them to differentiate their femininity (playing into the hands of those who expect them to be the weaker sex). Spiders are easily portrayed as villains in many horror films such as Arachnophobia. Most parents will teach children to fear touching all and every spider. The indigenous craft of wanting to know your animal neighbours and each species differently and in detail has no real impact on a modern families’ ability to find food – you just buy it at the supermarket. I would be more impressed if the demonstration of spider fears involved experiments with indigenous peoples or the Piaroa, who are not so artificial and paranoid.