Insect fears: Where did we get our fear of creepy-crawlies from?

Spider on log, Dolly's, Brevard, North Carolina by Martin LaBar, on FlickrOf all the weird jobs in the world not to to do, being an entomologist – an insect expert – has to be at the top of the list. Few of us would relish the prospect of spending every working hour studying creepy-crawlies. Because for many of us, the mere suggestion of getting intimate with a mosquito or a bumble bee would be enough to bring us out in hives (sorry). But why do we have such a morbid hatred of these tiny little creatures – after all, what did they ever do to us?

When something scares us, our heart pounds, our palms get sweaty and we desperately try to get away. (Think: the woman standing on the table, screaming at the mouse in the old Tom and Jerry cartoons.) This primitive scaredy-cat reaction is part of what is termed the ‘fight or flight’ response: adrenaline surges around the body, blood flows to the muscles and our body prepares itself for action. We all have this biological response – and its necessary to help get us out of trouble.
It makes sense to get fired up if you’ve just stepped out in front of a bus. It makes little sense, however, to do the same if a spider has just crawled into bed with you. Strange then, that about one in ten of us have some kind of irrational fear. And arachnophobia – fear of spiders – and a phobia of insects are some of the most common.

While not all experts can agree, it seems likely that we have inherited such fears from our ancestors. Passed down through evolution, our forefathers would have relied on such simple, innate fears to help keep them from harm’s way. For example, a phobia of snakes would have prevented us from getting bitten, a fear of wolves would have helped prevent us from getting savaged, and freaking out at spiders would have stopped us getting poisoned by venomous ones.

Some phobias are ‘learnt’ through bad life experiences and many phobias can be ‘unlearnt’ through repeated exposure. There are however some ingrained fears that can’t be explained so easily. Clown phobia (caulrophobia), for example, is a particularly odd one – it’s pretty unlikely that our caveman ancestors faced too many sharp-clawed prehistoric jesters!

But then again, perhaps we are all just born with an aversion to bad humour.

A man walks into a bar holding a piece of asphalt. He says, “a beer please and one for the road!”

I rest my case.

Answer by Dr Stu

Image Source: Spider on log, Dolly’s, Brevard, North California by Martin Labar, on Flickr

Article by Stuart Farrimond

August 29, 2014

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at or his poncy personal website Here's his .

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