Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


Don’t Fear the Creatures

Me manly. Throw baby.

Me manly. Throw baby.

I fear nothing.

No, that is not statement of my own masculine machismo, which I generally lack. In fact, if you were to stick a fuzzy kitten or a baby before me, you would find me near-instantly reduced to fawning and cooing like a 5-year old girl. I’m not ashamed of that.

No, what I mean is that, for whatever reason – be it upbringing or genetics – I seem to lack a trait that in my experience 95% of the general public harbors. That trait is an irrational fear of some aspect of the living world.

Here is one example of this. I have talked to literally hundreds of people about this over the course of my thirty years, and without fail, nearly everyone I have ever spoken to reveal some sort of prejudicial bias against some specific branch of the animal kingdom. Usually it either is bugs in general, spiders, or snakes. For others it is raccoons, or opossoms, or rats, or any “pesky” vermin.

Often, instead of verbalizing it as fear, they will say “oh, I hate them,” or “I really don’t like them.” However, it all seems to break down to the same thing: an irrational distaste for entire groups of living creatures.

"I hate you too."

"I hate you too."

I simply cannot understand it. I mean, yes I understand intense phobias. My wife is a psychologist and I have a firm grasp on the nature of phobias. But the prevalence of this hatred and fear seems to go far beyond a massive case of societal phobia.

Considering that I seem to be alone in this (though in view of the subject of this blog in general, I’m sure many of you readers are like me), it seems to me that the main question I have is not “why do they fear?” but “why do I not fear?”

I was raised as a redneck rat-tailed child in the woods in Northeast Texas and then in the Ozark Mountains of Northwest Arkansas. I grew up surrounded with snakes, spiders, scorpions, and all manner of wildlife. But the rub of it is this: so did everyone else I ever grew up around! So did my parents, my siblings, and my friends. Yet still, all of them have some major irrational bias or another against one or more of these creatures.

So why is it you can throw a timber rattlesnake 3 feet in front of me and I’ll be like “wow! cool!”, whereas most people will scream and cry? My entire property is overrun with Northern Black Widows (see pics and video here), yet I have never had the faintest urge to call an exterminator.

I think at this point I should quickly define fear. If you stuck the same snake within striking distance of my body, you can be damn sure that fight-or-flight would kick in and I’d retreat in haste. I wouldn’t dare handle a black widow. The fight-or-flight is reflex to avoid bodily harm. The rest is rational fear, or more accurately, simple respect. This is not the fear I am talking about. I’m referring to the guttural yuk, eww, or aghhh factor that so many harbor.

So tell me, dear reader, because I honestly would like to understand – why do you fear/hate/dislike whatever part of the animal world you do?

I have thought about this a lot, and my best hypothesis is that, for me, fascination trumps fear, and even kills it. I have had an insanely passionate fascination in all things biology (and science in general) since I was 5 (as far back as I can remember). When I was young, I dissected dead things, I played with insects, and I handled king snakes. Some of my little friends did this, but even then, I remember that I seemed much more interested by those things than my friends did. So is this the simple answer? Maybe, but I’m not so sure.

If so, the question just shifts a degree to “why the hell doesn’t everyone else find the living world as fascinating as I do?”

"Be glad glass is too smooth. Be very very glad."

"Be glad glass is too smooth. Be very very glad."

I had several traumatic animal-related events as a child. When I was 9, a scorpion found its way into my pajamas while I slept. It got wedged against my calf where it stung me 8 times. My dad ran in, ripped my pants down, and stomped the scorpion that fell to the ground, while I screamed bloody murder. Still, I think scorpions are awesome. A giant black rat snake I once handled grabbed my hand and chewed it until the blood flowed (also see my related post on black rat snakes and ignorant rednecks). I’ve been stung by countless hymenoptera (hornets bees, wasps, yellow jackets). I’ve been bitten by spiders. Still, I love them all.

Is my brain simply not wired to make the kind of phobic connections that so many others have? My wife is deathly afraid of cockroaches, yet I’m sure the worst that ever happened was that she got one in her hair. Somehow I doubt that a difference in my own susceptibility to phobias or conditioning is the answer – I can’t imagine I wouldn’t develop PTSD if a truly traumatic event were to occur to me.

Am I more rational? I know that in many cases I’m much more rational than others, though I still have my own irrational quirks. However, my lack of fear also extends to other things – like death. I have thought and thought and I can honestly say there is nothing that I simply fear. There are many things that I’d rather not happen, but none that I chronically fear.

I don’t mean this to come across as arrogant at all. I have many many faults, most of which I can admit. But this seems to be a trait of mine I have observed. Those that know me – tell me if you disagree.

It just doesn’t make any sense to me to dislike, hate, or fear any type of creature. There is nothing logical about it. To me it’s like saying “I don’t like the color green.” What does that even mean? I can understand not wanting to wear green because one finds it less aesthetically pleasing or because it doesn't match one's eyes. But this is fundamentally different from not liking the color itself. I would be scared to tromp through a grizzly den, but I don’t hate or fear grizzlies in general.

Anyway, I’ve rambled enough on this. I would very much like to hear any thoughts any of you have.

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  1. How’s this for weird fears: I’m horribly and irrationally afraid of moths. I scream bloody murder if one comes within 5 feet of me, especially if I didn’t notice it until that point. I love snakes, don’t have anything against spiders or scorpions – I love just about every creature on this planet, and find spending time in the presence of most of them is unbelievably awesome… but moths are just freaky. I mean, I am really, really terrified of them. I perfectly understand that they are 100% harmless – it’s not going to sting or bite or hurt me in any way. I just have absolutely no control over it (which has amused a number of very mean boys with uncanny moth-catching abilities). Maybe your wife can explain that? There is something very wrong with me (ok, other than the OTHER things that are wrong with me).

    … although, me around a moth – pretty funny stuff if you’re not me.

  2. I’m sure she could tell you QUITE a bit about it, because of A) her intense psychology training, and B) the fact that she shares the exact same fear (with the addition of cockroaches to moths).

    It’s funny – all the time she’ll say “you know, phobias are one of the easiest things to cure through therapy” (I believe mainly with “CBT” or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”). It’s a simple conditioned response that is pretty easy to break with professional help, though most people don’t care enough to break it.

    I’ll of course just laugh as she jumps and squeals when a moth lands on her. Hypocrite. :)

    BTW – congrats on your new Nature Network blog.

  3. I’m also pretty confused by this. I find roaches to be kind of disgusting, but only because the way the smell and the way they feel when they crawl on you bring back bad memories. I’d also be kind of apprehensive about eating the abdomen of a tarantula, but that’s the closest I get to what you’re talking about.

    My sister is afraid of my pet rat(s). I don’t understand it. It really is irrational. In fact, it deeply offends me. My pets are my children!

  4. I absolutely understand what you mean when you say you don’t fear anything, I suffer from a similar problem. (which led to many scoldings and screaming aunts when I brought home scary-looking critters. For the record, Dolomedes Triton may be big and scary looking, but isn’t dangerous! I brought home a beautiful pair of them, and they were summarily squished. I was very sad.) I’ve encountered the silly gut-level disgust reaction when introducing my pet rat snake (Caligula) to various people, including one woman who exclaimed “Ugh! He’s so slimy! And he smells!” (both of which are entirely inaccurate, to the point of being idiotic.)

    I, for one, put it down to the simple fact that most people are bloody morons. Perhaps there is just a huge percentage of people suffering from phobias of the same general “creepy-crawly” category, but where did they learn that? Most of the “ick bugs!” people I’ve encountered have never touched one, let alone been viciously attacked by ravaging hordes of them. No rational reason to fear them, no rational reason to squish them at every opportunity – thus, people are just stupid. I can give people a fear or two (I for one have an irrational fear of that bunny man Frank from the movie Donnie Darko… when a few friends chased me into a dark corner with pictures of him, I started crying.) but fearing entire categories of the animal kingdom is just absurd.

    ::rant rant rant:: =)

    and, for the record, I’ve always recognized my phobias and gradually exposed myself to them until I didn’t fear them any more (I used to be afraid of needles, so made a point of donating blood. Frank still gives me the shivers, but I can watch the movie without hiding under the sheets.)

    Maybe we should just have mandatory CBT for every little girl and most little boys before their bug-hating parents can get to them.

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