Are primates hard-wired to be scared of snakes?

Posting will be light today as there’s a Horseman afoot (see next post), but I wanted to call attention to a paper that’s of some interest. It can even be construed as a decent bit of research on (horrors!) evolutionary psychology.

The paper by, Quan van Le et al. in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA (reference and download below), suggest that selection has molded primate brains to render them particularly sensitive to snakes.  I won’t be able to do it justice in the time I have to write, but let’s have a look.

The authors implanted electrodes in individual neurons of brains of three macaque monkeys (Macaca fuscata) and then did recordings from the neurons as the monkeys were exposed to four sets of pictures: snakes, angry monkey faces, monkey hands, and other geometrical shapes, like circles. The monkeys had been trained to look at the screen, and were rewarded when they did.  The authors’ “Snake Detection Theory” (“SDT”; what a name!) led them to hypothesize that these neurons—in a region of the brain called the “medial and dorsolateral pulvinar”, a region unique in primates—would respond especially quickly to images of snakes.  The pulvinar has been shown to be involved in visual processing of information from the eyes, and, as the authors note, “fast processing of threatening images.”  This hypothesis is of course based on the supposition that primates have an innate fear of snakes (these monkeys were reared in captivity and never exposed to snakes), a fear bred into them by natural selection. Those monkeys who weren’t especially attentive to snakes, the SDT suggests, were those monkeys who didn’t leave descendants! That would lead to natural selection for more attentiveness, perhaps detectable by neuronal response.

What the authors found supports the SDT, but weakly.  Of the 91 neurons tested with all stimuli, 37 were more sensitive to snake images, 26 to angry-face images, 17 to hand images, and 11 to shape images. That is weakly significant (hash mark), but only if you use the p < 0.1 criterion that is used in psychology but not biology (we use p < 0.05, and physicists are far more stringent).  Here’s the figure from their paper showing that snake neurons are more numerous (A), have a higher magnitude of response than the other categories of neurons (B), and have a lower latency of response than other categories (C; i.e., they respond faster). The brackets show the groups compared, and an asterisk or hash sign over a bracket means the comparison is significant.

Picture 5

As expected, then, “snake neurons” were more numerous and more sensitive to the relevant stimuli than neurons in the other three groups, and in second place was the number and response of “angry monkey face” neurons, which I suspected from the outset since monkeys are surely selected to be attentive to each other’s expressions.

There were other experiments as well, involving scrambling the images, and these supported the main result.  I won’t go into more detail except to say that these result are suggestive, although the higher probabilities involved in some comparisons, particularly those of “hand” versus “face” neurons, are a bit worrisome.  The authors conclude:

. . . since the origin of primates, snakes have been a universal threat; both primates and snakes that can kill them (i.e., constrictors and venomous snakes) have their greatest diversity in tropical ecosystems (1, 2, 40, 41). Our data provide unique neuronal evidence supporting the hypothesis that snakes provided a novel selective pressure that contributed to the evolution of the primate order by way of visual modification (2, 5). We urge neurophysiologists to engage in similar studies across a wide range of primate species and closely related mammals to further examine the phylogenetic fingerprint of fast snake detection.

Now there’s an easier way to see if primates are innately scared of snakes: just expose a bunch of naive primates to snakes versus other animals, or snake-toys versus other kinds of toys, and see if they show a fright reaction. The authors mention that this has been done: snakes are detected “visually more quickly than innocuous stimuli” in both humans and other primates. What the authors show here is, perhaps, the neurological basis for that difference.

As they say, this study needs fleshing out with more species, especially those species that have never encountered snakes during their evolution. Maybe mammals are attentive to long skinny things for other reasons. But it’s a start, and it’s the kind of evolutionary psychology that I consider pretty good. My last statement will, of course, immediately trigger a group of quibblers to find faults with this work.  But you have problems with the paper, take them up not with me but with David Hillis, who was the editor on this one—and a reader here!

One more thing: they need to do studies like this with spiders, too—at least judging by the reaction of our commenters this week!

_____________

Van Le, Q., L. A. Isbell, J. Matsumoto, M. Nguyen, E. Hori, R. S. Maior, C. Tomaz, A. H. Tran, T. Ono, and H. Nishijo. 2013 Pulvinar neurons reveal neurobiological evidence of past selection for rapid detection of snakes.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, early edition: 10.1073/pnas.1312648110

85 Comments

  1. Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I hope this doesn’t come off as snarky, as it’s intended as a genuine question:

    We already have some pretty good evidence that monkeys will develop a rapid and lasting fear to snakes (and seemingly alligators as well), but not rabbits or flowers, following exposure to another conspecific displaying a fear reaction (as I outlined briefly in my last post here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/pop-psych/201310/classic-research-in-evolutionary-psychology-learning).

    This seems to be some rather suggestive evidence for there being something special about snakes/alligators (or perhaps dangerous animals more generally). Of course, we ought to expect this to be present in the brain somewhere, since that’s the organ responsible for generating such behavior, but would this study suggest anything beyond that conclusion? That is, does it tell us anything new, other than the fact that some parts of the brain responds in a different way to some stimuli, relative to others?

    I think it’s fine to describe what such activity might look like – I certainly don’t oppose the idea – but I have my doubts as to whether this study provides any new and important insights concerning the hypothesis in question…

  2. Merilee
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I was just about to say they need to do spider studies, too. Why are 8 legs so much scarier than 6? And no legs ( snakes and eels) creepier than 4 ( lizards, etc?).

    I had seen reference before to some studies like the snake one above.

    Anyone ever see the Far Side with the custodian of the snake house in the zoo suddenly getting a cumulative case of the willies??

    • David Duncan
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:25 am | Permalink

      One of my pals said the Alien movie deliberately played on the human fear of spiders. I know it wasn’t good for my blood pressure.

      • Grania Spingies
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:06 am | Permalink

        I think it played on our fears of things that jump out of the shadows and go “Grrrrr….arg”

        • David Duncan
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

          Initially my house had a far number of spiders, and I got used to glancing upwards when going through doors, which is where the Alien liked waiting to pounce.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        & yet I love those movies but my mom who has no fears of spiders is terrified of them. :)

    • Wildhog
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      And why is a red insect (ladybug) so much less gross than a black one?

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I would like to know about the spidey stuff too. I remember reading somewhere that humans who had a fear of spiders often can trace it back to a childhood trauma: being told the spider could hurt them or being tormented by siblings with a spider. For me, I exactly remember when it happened. I was playing with one on the floor and my mom told me that they could hurt me (ugh, come on it’s Canada in a apt). It must’ve awakened something in me because I developed a completely irrational fear from then onward.

      With snakes, I have never been afraid & always thought they were cute but I used to collect garter snakes with my dad by the handfuls as a kid so never experienced them as threatening. I’m still the go-to person for removing snakes….the last time I had to do this, I refused because the snake was beneath cobwebs (& where there are cobwebs, there are spideys!).

      For me, the spider “tweezers” as I’ve always called them – the fangs are what scare me more than the legs & eyes which makes sense in context to the awakening of my phobia.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

        Well, as far as I’m concerned, 8 legs is not particularly creepy, but dozens of legs (as in centipedes or segmented worms) gives me the instant shuddering horrors.

  3. gillt
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    This post is a major them in Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden. He was of course speculating at the time but speculating much along these lines.

  4. gbjames
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    sub

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      2

  5. Dominic
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Remember the famous test with chimps & a stuffed leopard I think the BBC filmed – they ended up attacking it. I wonder if people who are not frightened by snakes or spider – like myself – are more likely to be atheists? Does fear of those creatures relate to seeing something in the shadows?

    • Dominic
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Talking of spiders – this on Systematics, Phylogeny and Evolution of Orb-Weaving Spiders http://tinyurl.com/q84af7u

    • David Duncan
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Perhaps the chimps realised that the leopards weren’t real and so weren’t afraid, just as undesirable birds at airports are not usually afraid of fake predators but are afraid of the real thing.

      • Dominic
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        That is possible – cannot find a link to it but is was possibly another Attenborough programme – maybe 1980s…

    • Dominic
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:23 am | Permalink

      Also I am happy for someone to stick an electrode into my brain (if they can find it!) to test me :)

      • David Duncan
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

        I’m on my way. :-)

    • Merilee
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

      I’m totally an atheist and not scared of alien or supernatural movies at all. But spiders – and sometimes snakes – are a different story…

  6. Wildhog
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    This seems to be a case of science proving what we already know.

    I used to volunteer at the zoo. They told us in the training class that if we are going to get out a snake, to warn the crowd ahead of time so people have a chance to exit the room without panic. For some reason I find that hilarious.

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think we already knew that in primates a fear of snakes is innate and not learned. In fact, I think we still don’t know.

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        What about that nest building for birds and web building for spiders is largely innate? Are we comfortable saying anything is innate?

        • wildhog
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

          “Are we comfortable saying anything is innate?”

          Well I certainly am.

        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

          Sure. Lots of things are innate. Nest and web building are two good examples.

  7. Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Are the Horseman not Dennett, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens?

  8. Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I think it’s in Pinker’s Better Angels where he notes snakes and spiders rank high on people’s fears even in places where there are none — like urban areas (at least no snakes in urban areas). I’m afraid of snakes (I do not touch them at the zoo), and I’ve only seen two in my life — and I ran in terror both times. (One was a rattlesnake, if that saves face any).

    Anecdotally, I wonder if water, or at least deep water, is also a built-in fear. My 15-month old took several trips to the swimming pool before he would get in, even with me holding him. As a kid, I remember being fearful of the deep end, in part because I could not see the bottom, and I thought some animal could be lurking there.

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      My fifteen month old stood on the ladder to the deep end and pointed to the bench where she wanted me to go sit and leave her alone. She then eased herself into the water – no fear whatsoever. But she’d been in swimming pools regularly since around three months old. She also walked straight into the ocean and was knocked over by a wave and came up smiling at around a year. We saw a guy holding two enormous constrictor snakes in the park one day (a Burmese python and a red-tailed boa, I think) and she was super excited to go say hi and pet them. No fear at all. Maybe she’s just crazy, but I need to see a well designed study to prove it before I accept that fear of snakes is not learned. Although, my wife and I are also not scared of snakes, so maybe it is hereditary and we’re just lacking the genes.

    • Merilee
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

      I started my son swimming at 6 months and he was fearless, even while swimming mainly underwater. I think kids develop the fear of water later, which makes me believe it’s probably not innate.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted November 1, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

        For the same reason, puberty and senescence are not innate but must be learned.

  9. nickswearsky
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    I do believe humans are hardwired for snakes. Several times while I was doing fieldwork in the jungles of western Tanzania, I would be walking down a trail and stop abruptly. I looked down and saw the snake (deadly puff adders and black mambas) only after I had stopped for no reason. This happened many times.

    • Merilee
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      Glad you stopped :-)

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted November 1, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      This ‘abrupt stop’ and subliminal recognition of a snake is analogous to some of my experiences. The first few times I encountered snakes active in the wild (even after watching them for dozens of hours in the zoo, reading field guides, and making the decision to attempt to observe, identify and catch any I could), I had momentary blackouts during which I froze, and only became aware a snake had been present when it had already escaped. I kept practicing, and got better. Most Australian snakes (despite what you see on TV) are only mildly venomous, so I even survived.

      Later I got into palaeontology but still specialized on snakes, and several times had a similar experience where I became aware that a snake bone was showing on the surface of a rock, but not exactly where it was (so I’d have to start looking for it). I concluded that a part of my brain was functioning as a very fast snake-detector, separate from the usual visual attention circuit. Now maybe I can put a name to that brain-part, which I never heard of till now.

      Brain development is complicated, and for any region or function of the brain, you can bet there are people who have a lot of it or none at all. People who lack strong feelings about snakes seem creepy to me, like they were born without biophilia.

  10. Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    A colleague of mine had a pet Australian magpie, which had been hand-reared since it was a fledgling, and had never (in New Zealand of course) seen a snake. It got very agitated when it saw a toy snake. I know, n=1, but interesting.
    Brockie, R. E., and L. Sorensen. “An Australian Magpie’s Gymnorbina tibicen response to fake snakes in New Zealand.” Notornis 45 (1998): 269-270.

  11. alexandra moffat
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    I understand that here in NH it is irrational to be scared of snakes but I am – it is a visceral reaction, that happens instantly, I yelp and jump and feel foolish. Maybe I am closer to primate than human – so be it. I do think some of us may indeed by hardwired for snakes. I used to have a dog that would kill them, to protect me, I think, because she was a protective breed, and didnt seem to enjoy it.
    My current dogs would be most skeptical of the thought.
    Yes, I do like cats!

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      As a human, you ARE a primate (and a simian), as are all of us!

      • Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        yes, but are we also monkeys? I’ve seen it argued that the group “monkeys” is inclusive of apes, but that sounds wrong to me. I don’t know if there is an officially correct answer. Anyone?

        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

          This might help: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hominidae

          Monkeys and great apes also have a common ancestor in the primate and simian line.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

            I remember I was excited that Kramer correctly identified himself as a primate when he gets in a fight with a fellow primate at a zoo. :) Yes, this is another example of how much Seinfeld influenced me.

  12. Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Hear that, Indiana “I hate snakes” Jones? :D

  13. Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    It seems logical enough to expect that if snake fear is innate, then it should be observed in studies like these (maybe with better snake images it will be more obvious in brain response). However, if snake fear’ (sounds like a movie) is learned behavior by these particular monkeys, they could get by just fine in the wild by just having the ability to learn… Learned from other monkeys who have innate fear of snakes, or learned simply by passing it down generation after generation. Thus you would expect a weak correlation if they weren’t reared by mothers who screamed at snakes in the wild. In fact, one could argue the gene wouldn’t be necessary any longer, if social behavior is strong enough to augment it, and passed down through enough generations..so then it wouldn’t be very frequent in wild or captive groups.

    • Posted October 30, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      That’s related to what I read somewhere – that primates are especially prone to *learning* to be afraid of snakes.

      My friend Raven found the stronger hypothesis implausible, because amongst several native American groups, snakes are sacred animals. (On the other hand, “fear and trembling” often applies to the holy in many parts of the world …)

  14. David Duncan
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a snake outside of a zoo, and even there they are behind glass, so I have no fear reaction. If I saw one inside my house I’m sure that would be different.

    I’m relaxed about spiders so long as they keep their distance. Many are useful for keeping down other pests. So long as they stay away from me I’m okay.

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 31, 2013 at 12:24 am | Permalink

      Where do you live, that you have not seen snakes? Do you never go into the countryside?

      • Posted October 31, 2013 at 7:08 am | Permalink

        In Ireland, perhaps… They say that Saint Patrick chased them all away. ;)

        • Diane G.
          Posted October 31, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

          Oh, right, I forgot about that.
          :D

  15. DagoRed
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    As an avid forest hiker myself (and a lover of snakes too), I have noticed that the serpentine appearance of several exposed tree roots on the trail often elicit a fright response (at least from me). As my attention often wanders when hiking these trails, I am amazed at how often my attention is suddenly yanked back to the trail before me, as I instinctually side-step or jump over an exposed tree root out of fear of stepping on it or too close to it. Something inside my head is clearly shouting “snake” at such moments. It wouldn’t be much of an issue if it only happened once in a while, but this is a very common event on my hikes, happening several times no matter how familiar I am with the trails (and I never think “banana slug” or “millipede” or “earthworm” which also share this biome and can all be quite HUGE where I live). I have long wondered if this response was indicative of an inate evolutionary response to snakes, rather than a learned fear (as I usually like snakes and eagerly handle them when I can catch them — I know, stop molesting the wildlife, but I find the tiny California ring-necks particularly cuddly and irrisistable when I am lucky enough to spot one)

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

      Interestingly enough, I don’t have that reaction. Now I’ve lived in NZ (which has NO snakes) for 5 decades, so if I had that instinct obviously it’s been eroded by the passage of time. I like snakes in theory, don’t know how I’d react in reality. I do like walking in the bush, and I usually walk barefoot (not typical NZ behaviour, but so far as CeilingCat’s footwear fetish is concerned I’m a complete atheist) so I do have to watch out where I put my feet – this includes watching for tree roots of which there are many – but they never give me a fright.

      What creeps me out is centipedes, though I’ve only ever seen one as big as 4″ in the wild (on a trail in Rarotonga), the biggest I’ve seen is a 6″ monster in a coffee jar that a friends’ kids found in their garden in the bush fringe a few miles from here. I am cautious around dead wood for that reason.

      Millipedes, OTOH, I’m fine with – I guess their ‘thousands’ of little legs are too fine and furry to appear creepy or ‘leggy’, and they move very slowly.

  16. Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    A minor comment – psychologists typically use p values of .05 or less as a threshold of significance, not p <.01

  17. Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    I was living in Afghanistan in 1971-192, in Kabul, and that winter was the coldest and snowiest in over 20 years. It was so cold that wolves would come into the city and were even spotted in the center of Kabul. My Afghan friends explained that their way to not be attacked by the starving wolves was by undoing their turban (which consisted of a very long piece of cloth that was twisted around on itself) and tie one end to their waist on the back, so that it would trail behind as they walked. They told me that wolves would mistake it for a snake and keep well away, so it seems that this instinctive fear of snakes is hardwired in other species besides primates.

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, but I don’t really find the “some guys told me what the wolves were thinking” anecdote very convincing.

      • Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        I never said anything about wolves thinking. Anyway, whether you find my anecdote convincing or not makes no difference, it actually happened and this technique was explained to me on several occasions by different and unrelated Afghans. What part did you not find convincing?

        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          How did they know that the wolves thought the cloth was a snake? And how many wolf attacks were there?

          I think it more likely that one day someone thought, “maybe if I untie my turban and drag it behind me the wolves will think it’s a snake and leave me alone.” When he wasn’t attacked by wolves he concluded that his theory was correct, and now it is common knowledge that wolves think a piece of cloth dragging behind you is a snake and they won’t attack.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

            I would have thought more likely the wolves would think it was a tail.

          • Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:20 am | Permalink

            Whatever. I was just relating what was told me by several different Afghans. Perhaps they are absolutely right.

  18. h2ocean
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Just to clarify, p < .05 is more standard in psychology than .10. Usually anything between .06 and .10 needs to be qualified with the words "marginal", and often reviewers get cranky :)

  19. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I’m fairly convinced my fear of spiders is hard-wired into me. No matter what I always get a small shot of adrenalin when I spot one close to me.

    It sure as hell isn’t a rational fear anymore.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

      If my own hair brushes against me unexpectedly, I’ve jumped & screamed! How embarrassing!

      • gbjames
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Hair brushes are scary!

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        :-)

        When it comes to spiders, I’m all about survival of the biggest.

        Some of them are released into the great outdoors, but I’m afraid most of them get whacked with the newspaper.

        If there is a spider heaven, I’m gonna have hell to pay.

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      In general, I find spiders pretty fascinating. Seeing a daddy long legs crawling on my sleeping bag while camping on a glacier-covered ridge line, however, was something that I could not stand for.

      I bravely killed it. ;-)

      • Merilee
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

        And somehow i find Daddy Long Legs by far the least scary of spiders. I’ll even let them walk on me. Maybe because their legs are so skinny and UNhairy. When i went to camp near Big Bear, CA, when i was 9, the average latrine had about 10 of them, so if you needed to go to bathroom you were stuck between the woods and the spiders….

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          Probably because they aren’t spiders at all – they’re harvestmen :)

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

            Not to be confused with these guys which I’m always rescuing & who live all over my house. They will indeed bob around if you disturb them in their web.

          • Merilee
            Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            Technicalities:-)

          • Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:48 am | Permalink

            Oops!

          • Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:45 am | Permalink

            From the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

            crane fly, also called daddy longlegs, any insect of the family Tipulidae (order Diptera). In English-speaking countries other than the United States, the crane fly is popularly called daddy longlegs because it has a slender, mosquito-like body and extremely long legs. (In the United States, “daddy longlegs” generally refers to an arachnid.)

            More at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/141774/crane-fly

            I too was a bit nonplussed, as a Brit I knew only of our clumsy daddy longlegs and had never heard of the name being applied to any kind of spider. :)

  20. Paul
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    The honey badger definitely isn’t hard wired to fear snakes or much of anything for that matter.

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjghttp://m.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

    • John Taylor
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Paul Taylor? Is that you? I know how you love the Honey Badger.

    • John Taylor
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      You messed up the link. I get video not found.

      • John Taylor
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

        I think this will work.

        • John Taylor
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

          Whoops. Didn’t want to embed it.

        • Merilee
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

          The honey badger clip is hilarious!!!

      • Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:34 am | Permalink

        That’s because it is the same YouTube posted twice with no gap between them. Go to any YouTube video and replace what comes after .com/ with this: watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

  21. Adam M.
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading (perhaps in a book by Ramachandran, or perhaps not) about how infant monkeys (of some species) would give an alarm call when shown an artificial snake or a snake-like object, such as a curvy stick or a rubber hose. As they grew older, the sense was refined to the point where the cruder snake-like objects (like sticks and hoses) no longer triggered the reaction.

    The conclusion was that they seem to have rough innate pattern matching for snakes, but the sense is refined through learning as they grow.

  22. Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I wonder whether humans are hard wired for fear of snakes. What if no one tells a baby /child that snakes are dangerous, will they know it? On the other hand, if such a person interacts with a snake and it stings him, it would have a drastic effect upon him, whether he knew it or not that snakes are poisonous. So on the whole, it would be good to prevent an accident than try to cure.

  23. athiest in a foxhole
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to see more study on whether this fear of snakes and other creepy crawlies is innate or learned.

    As a child, I would play with every and any creepy crawly I could catch: lizards, horned toads, big red ants, go wading through streams catching crawdads by hand. And the year when the cicadas came out was awesome…you could find them crawling up every tree around by the dozens. One of my Texican friends (first in his family born in US) would catch the flying adults and tie a string to them. He’d walk around with it buzzing around on a leash. Frickin awesome!

    When I was about 5, I went out with my great uncle on his 300 acre ranch a few times to help clear out the rattlesnakes from his pasture. By we, I mean I had to sit in the cab of the truck and watch. By the end of the day we’d have a pickup bed full of writhing rattlers. When I was 8 or so, I’d catch grass snakes, garter snakes, got bit a few times but not bad enough to stop me. Even tried my hand at catching rattlesnakes to sell to the annual rattlesnake roundup when I was 16 but my friend and I couldn’t find any on his property in the country that day.

    The only snake I’m worried about is the water moccasin, and that’s a rational ‘fear’. They are very poisonous, very aggressive and will chase you on the water and try to get into your boat…not cool when you are paddling around in a kayak whose top is only inches above the water. I went from idle to fifth gear rather suddenly that day. You get very good at recognizing turtle or snake from a distance on the lakes here in Texas.

    • Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      “One of my Texican friends (first in his family born in US) would catch the flying adults and tie a string to them. He’d walk around with it buzzing around on a leash.”

      In Europe, children do (or used to do, they did when I was a child) the same thing with cockchafers who also have a long life cycle like cicadas but are not related to them.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cockchafer

  24. Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks. I always have wondered about the so called “innate fear of snakes”. As an eight year old my grandmother told me about the evil serpent who caused original sin. She told me snakes were evil and ugly. I did not agree because I thought they were beautiful and certainly not evil. I cut out pictures of snakes from magazines an placed them on her bed just so I could convince her how beautiful they are. Boy, did I get hell from my mother. I must have lost the snake fear neurons somehow.

  25. will
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I believe in a relative amount of free will in humans (speaking for myself; I think our human consciousness sets us apart) — but this post dovetails into the general free will debate nicely: we really ARE like walking programmed machines. There’s so many things in our behavior that’s set, already pre-determined.

    There’s something about institutionalizing “no free will” that rubs me the wrong way: it seems potentially harmful to teach high school students, say, that they are pre-programmed for violence or other basic functions. Internalizing the idea that your are a programmed machine is probably destructive.

    • will
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      Or, at the least, de-humanizing.

  26. Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    There are some who say the ancestral fear is not spiders and snakes, but eels and crabs. Discuss.

  27. Sean
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    Does this explain the the talking snake ;-)

  28. Bob Scott Placier
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    There is experimental evidence that at least one bird, the Turquoise-browed Motmot of the American tropics, has an even more refined innate response to snakes. Snakes are part of their diet in the wild, but fledgling birds of the species avoid thin objects with the color pattern of the venomous coral snake (red and yellow bands). They readily peck at objects with other color patterns, including those with red and yellow stripes.

  29. anthrosciguy
    Posted October 31, 2013 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry I don’t have the ref, but among the volumous studies done of Japanese macaques (almost certainly the paper is in the journal Primates) there was a test of this using a toy snake in an open bucket. Juveniles approached the bucket and looked at and handled the “snake” with no apparent fear. But the adults went crazy when they saw the kids playing with it, and their reaction made the juveniles react to the toy in a fearful way.

    So that indicates, from actual testing, that the fear is taught rather than innate.

  30. marksolock
    Posted November 3, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.


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  1. […] placing the electrodes, the authors showed the macaques a series of images: geometric figures, monkey hands, monkey faces, and snakes. The scientists then measured how many […]

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