Don’t fear the octopodes

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.


  1. Artor says

    Hey, I’m with you 100% PZ. Spiders are awesome, and most of them are beautiful. Even the ones that can rot holes in my flesh with their bite get gentle treatment from me, as long as they aren’t inside my living space. I wish they’d pick up after themselves though; they leave cobwebs in some hard-to-reach places.

  2. René says

    the more we have in common with others – or the more closely related we are – the more compassion we have for them.

    Wow. So much wrong with that. I might come back on that over the weekend (I’m expecting some vaccinated guests), but let me just say this, for now. If they look very much like me, it’s probably family, if they look somewhat different, they might be competitors. If they look like ‘normal people’, they might be compatriots. If they look like from another continent, ‘I’ might just hate them, they’re ugly. If they’re apes my folks (until very, very recently) just laughed at them, dressing them up in costumes.
    Tomorrow, mkay?

  3. davidc1 says

    ” Pathological fear of things with eight legs”.
    I think that was the reason my dad hated pop and rock music .
    Part of the fear of spiders is that you tend to come across them suddenly ,sitting on the toilet ,lying in bed ,that sort of situation .
    On the other hand ,there are times when your mind is on other things and you couldn’t give a monkeys how big they are .
    I have posted before of the time when I was in Texas ,in a motel in Bay City .I felt over in the shower ,I was sitting on my bed trying not to cry with the pain .
    Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dirty great big Tarantula head out of the door ,I didn’t bat an eyelid .

    PS, my dad and things with eight legs ,most groups had Four members .HAHA.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    The webs collect dust and contain the remains of meals. This contributes significantly to the “ick” factor.

  5. JustaTech says

    Here in the Pacific North Wet it’s Second Spider Season (first spider season is in the spring, when they all hatch, second spider season is when they’re fattening up for winter/egg laying).

    I have a strong startle reaction to spiders (jump, gasp, shriek), but I’m not, like, intellectually afraid of them. So I’ve made a rule: inside the house, out of sight and out of reach spiders are just fine and they can stay and do their spider thing. Touch me and you’re likely to get terminated. (One time a very large spider ran across my lap while I was sitting on the couch and I was so startled I picked up the entire couch trying to make sure it was gone.)

    Spiders outdoors are in their space so while I might damage a web (hello, I need to leave my house, stop building a web there, you can’t catch me, I’m too big) I’m 100% not going to squish them

    I don’t think I’ve squashed a spider in years. Like, why bother? They’re not venomous or likely to hurt my cat (and they are in zero danger from her, inept hunter), and if I get webs, well, that means it’s time to clean again.

  6. Walter Solomon says

    Is it OK to kill daddy long-legs? I was told they weren’t actually spiders.

  7. davidc1 says

    @6 Do you mean Harvestmen ,they are related to spiders .Not really bothered by them myself .

  8. unclefrogy says

    mice leave droppings everywhere, gnaw on stuff, and try to invade our pantry to eat our food.

    they also spoil way more food then they eat by crapping and peeing in it.
    I do not buy the notion that the fear of spiders is in any way inborn at all

    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.

    so where is the proof of that?
    venomous? are dangerous venomous spiders really all that common anywhere other then Australia?

  9. DanDare says

    I find it hard to look directly at the photo of attalus. I forced myself. I was able to note that if you “see” only the two big eyes and the triangle of face under it that you can extract an image of the grey aliens. That helps. But my seeing snaps back to the rest of the spider after a few moments and the horror returns.
    Despite this I don’t squish spiders except when largish ones surprise me within my personal space. That’s a reflex. The rest of the time, if they are big or potentially dangerous (I’m in Australia), I catch them and put them outside.

  10. says

    If it’s outside, and not on me, I’ll leave it alone and “admire” from afar.
    If it’s in my space or, worse, touches me, we’re going to have a problem.
    Unless it’s an opilliones (round leggy thing) or one of those super-chill cellar spiders, they’re alright. All the rest get turned past-tense.

  11. brucegee1962 says

    I don’t find them particularly revolting or particularly beautiful. Maybe a bit of a creepiness factor. But I don’t understand why people feel a need to kill bugs, just because they’re in our space. We invade their space all the time.
    We keep a plastic cup and a card to cover it in our kitchen at all times. Whenever any kind of bug gets inside other than mosquitos, my wife calls me, and I catch it and let it go outside. Living things are too precious to squish.
    Except mosquitos. If they get in they’re toast.

  12. Jazzlet says

    I’m ok with spiders as long as they don’t crawl over me or too near me if they are over a cerattain size. I don’t try and rescue them from the sink, because I am too likely to startle while doing so and damage them, whereas my OH can rescue them without hurting them. I noticed one of the large furry ones in the sink when I was filling the kettle earlier this evening, I didnt even startle although it was only around 30cm away from me, which surprised me, but it was clearly stuck so maybe that’s why; OH came and put it safely out of the window. If they build a web in a suitable place I’ll even feed them flies, I rather enjoy whacking flies out of the air and it’s nice to be able pay tribute when I can.

  13. says

    I love spiders. They’re so cool. I leave them alone in my apartment except to occasionally clean up their old cobwebs and desiccated remains. As long as they’re not crawling on me when I’m not expecting it, everything is fine. I startle anytime I feel the sensation of a spider or insect crawling on my skin and it’s pretty risky for any critter doing that because I tend to flinch pretty hard.

  14. Doubting Thomas says

    Uh, yeah spiders do make a mess with their poop, webs and dead bugs. Just not as bad as mice. But we still love them.