The vast majority of us have a reaction to insects and spiders. For most it’s a mixture of awareness and wariness, as very few are able to relax or actively enjoy their company. For some people though the feelings of revulsion and horror are so strong that they can be debilitating, and these are the people who have phobias or fear of insects and spiders.
Many of our fears are culturally conditioned, and we learn them from our parents, our family, and our friends. In the same way that children can develop a phobia of dogs from seeing their parent’s unease with them, so those in the western world imitate and incorporate other peoples’ fear of insects and spiders.
This cultural taboo against entomophagy (eating insects) doesn’t exist everywhere else. From leafcutter ants in Colombia to witchetty grubs in Australia many other cultures traditionally embrace the consumption of insects, grubs and spiders. Even though the environmental benefits of entomophagy are compelling most authorities agree that the barriers to it being taken up in the west are insurmountable.
What lies behind this ingrained resistance though are two evolutionary advantages that continue to frame our thinking. The first of these is that fear of insects and spiders provided our remote ancestors with a greater chance of avoiding injury, infection, or disease. Just as with our fear of heights (acrophobia) and fear of snakes (ophidiophobia) our fear of insects (entomophobia) is an evolved adaptation to an environment that poses particular dangers.
Insects, spiders, grubs and arthropods can injure or infect us through stings and bites. They can be invasive and live in rapidly expanding populations or swarms. Their movements are unpredictable and unnatural, and their bodies alien and removed from our own. They resist being anthropomorphised and cannot be easily controlled or contained. In short at a primitive level they represent the potential for danger, and evolution has favoured the development of protective fears.
The second pressure that has reinforced these innate fears is humankind’s evolution as a social animal. The human brain has evolved to support complex social behaviour and the neocortex (the outer layer) is disproportionately larger than other primates. The neocortex contains the areas of the brain involved in behaviour and emotion, and empathy and the theory of mind. Our brains are effectively hardwired to seek social cohesion, and respecting taboos and sharing fears are two fundamental ways of achieving that.
Although it has its roots in prehistory our fear of insects and spiders is becoming more pronounced and widespread. Even the use of “cricket flour” in foodstuffs can cause revulsion, where the cricket based food stuff is not only completely transformed but unidentifiable. As our interaction with insects and spiders becomes less common so their “otherness” increases, and our tendency to conform to social norms increases the level of apprehension.