Snakes: the ancient enemy

Snakes: the ancient enemy February 28, 2008

Pity the snake – condemned in Genesis as the Devil incarnate, they also pop up in several other places in the bible usually as a symbol of things that you ought to steer well clear of (tormenting the Israelites in the wilderness, for example) .

But there’s increasing evidence that snakes have only themselves to blame for this sad state of affairs. Humans just can’t help being fearful of them – the result of millions of years of predation-driven evolution. Only those primates that could spot a snake sharpish survived to become our ancestors.

The latest study to show the deep-rooted anxiety we have about snakes will be published in the March 2008 issue of Psychological Science. The study tested preschool children to see if they could spot a snake hidden in a picture faster than a non-threatening item hidden among snakes. Not only were the kids able to spot a snake with alacrity, but so could their parents:

Preschool children and their parents were shown nine color photographs on a computer screen and were asked to find either the single snake among eight flowers, frogs or caterpillars, or the single nonthreatening item among eight snakes. As the study surprisingly shows, parents and their children identified snakes more rapidly than they detected the other stimuli, despite the gap in age and experience.

This builds on a number of other studies that have shown that humans have an unusual ability to spot snakes and to respond to them with fear. A similar study in 2006 found that undergraduates also have a keen eye for snakes (as well as spiders) – and that those with a snake phobia were even quicker. It’s even been suggested that it was the danger posed by snakes to our tree-dwelling ancestors that drove the evolution of our forward-facing eyes:

“Snakes and people have had a long history; it goes back to long before we were people in fact,” he said. “That might sort of explain why we have such extreme attitudes towards snakes, varying from deification to “ophidiphobia,” or fear of snakes.

So the demonisation of snakes in the judaeo-christian tradition is just one round in the ongoing war between mankind and serpents!

For more insight into our innate fear of snakes, see:

Öhman, Mineka. The malicious serpent: snakes as a prototypical stimulus for an evolved module of fear. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2003;12, 2-9.

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