It is not arachnocide season.
It’s officially arachnicide season in the Northern Hemisphere. Millions of spiders have appeared in our homes – and they’d better be on their guard. Why do we kill them so casually?
Don’t worry, the article gets better after that opening blurb, and is illustrated with lots of lovely photos of beautiful spiders. It’s an easily explained phenomenon about why spiders are coming into our homes. The weather is changing, it’s getting colder. Human houses are warm. It’s only natural that animals would look for more comfortable environments, even when those environments are full of dangerous, hostile, callous bipedal brutes. The same phenomenon is at work every fall when we get the annual influx of mice fleeing the first frost. I can’t blame them, but I still put out traps and kill them.
The difference is that mice leave droppings everywhere, gnaw on stuff, and try to invade our pantry to eat our food. Spiders do none of that. They are polite, beneficial, harmless, and to some eyes, quite pretty. Yet people murder them. The article tries to answer why.
Unfortunately, it also gives creedence to the idea that fear of spiders is natural. No it’s not, I don’t buy that for a minute — maybe because I’m biased, completely lacking in that antipathy, so I don’t relate to arachnophobia, but I also think people use arachnophobia to rationalize their dislike.
Perhaps the most obvious reason we view spiders as fair game for crushing is our pathological fear of things with eight legs, which makes empathy particularly challenging.
Human infants as young as just five months old tend to be more threatened by images of spiders than those of other organisms, suggesting that our aversion to them is partly innate, perhaps having evolved to prevent us from casually picking up ones that are venomous.
This natural wariness is then thought to be compounded by cultural factors, such as having parents who describe them as frightening as we grow up. Alarmist news articles and other depictions are likely to add an extra frisson of panic – some experts have linked the irrational fear many people have for sharks to the 1975 film Jaws, and it’s possible that the villainous spider trope is also having an impact.
Yes! Cultural factors! Here’s another example: my granddaughter loves owls, her favorite toy is Gray Owl, a rather floppy much man-handled stuffed animal. Can you blame her? Big forward-facing eyes are a “natural” feature for humans to like. But we learned that some Indian cultures (but not all!) regard owls as harbingers of doom, as embodied spirits, or shape-shifters. Out of respect, we had to tuck the owl taxonomic specimens at my university out of sight, because some visitors found them offensive.
It’s really not fair. It’s more of a fear of difference.
This is potentially problematic, because the more we have in common with others – or the more closely related we are – the more compassion we have for them. One 2019 study found that participants’ empathy for animals decreased in line with the amount of time since our evolutionary paths diverged.
Even scientists are heavily biased towards studying more charismatic, relatable animals. One 2010 study found that, for every research paper published about a threatened amphibian, there were 500 about an endangered large mammal.
It’s also the tragedy of not conforming to our expections of what babies should look like — you know, flabby, potato-shaped lumps with wet lips shrieking out unintelligible noises and eyes lost in a doughy blob of a face. Because that is so attractive.
Apart from their menacing fangs and scampering legs, spiders face another challenge in the looks department, at least from a human perspective: they don’t look like human babies.
The “babyface effect” is a hugely influential hidden bias among humans, which means that we accidentally treat people – and animals – with naturally “neotenous”, or child-like features as though they are actual babies. For example, oversized eyes, large foreheads, small noses and chins, and cherubic little lips can trigger powerful feelings of empathy, compassion and affection in humans.
However, the effect can also lead us into a number of well-documented blunders. In environmental conservation, it’s often observed that “cute” species receive significantly more attention and funding, while “uglier” animals under the care of humans – in zoos and laboratories, for example – may have a lower quality of life, because we find it harder to identify their suffering.
That’s why those darned jumping spiders are so popular. There’s nothing wrong with a jumping spider, but why can’t we also learn to love a nice spiky, bristly orbweaver? Or a quiet, demure, black cobweb spider? I guess I’ll just have to use Attulus as a gateway organism for now.