Evolution and Fear of Snakes

Another example of how evolution shaped how we think involves our fear of snakes. It doesn’t take much training or instruction to get us (or chimpanzees, our closest living relatives) to be fearful of snakes (see Mineka).

snakeFor instance, why is someone who lives in a city so terrified of snakes? Such fears make little sense, until one looks at our evolutionary past.

Living on the savannahs of Africa for millions of years, snakes were undoubtedly a problem for our ancestors. And given the nature of life, it is likely that some individuals were naturally more fearful of snakes than others.

It is also safe to assume that people who were more fearful of snakes took extra precautions to avoid close contact with them – precautions such as staying on well traveled paths, being cautious when picking things up off the ground, or freezing in one’s tracks when actually coming close to a snake.

spiderPeople with such fears, who took such precautions, were most likely to have an evolutionary advantage. Individuals who were prone to being afraid of snakes were more successful at staying alive.

Accordingly, all of us today are the descendants of individuals who were easily scared of snakes (spiders too). So, even though many of us have yet to encounter a single poisonous snake, except at the zoo or on TV, we are still, at a moment’s notice, readily frightened by snakes.

Ironically, and consistent with an evolutionary view of life, we have little natural fear of novel and dangerous things that we are currently surrounded by, such as automobiles or electrical outlets, even though these things are thousands of times more likely to harm us than a snake would nowadays.

In fact, the odds of you dying in a car accident over the course of your lifetime (1 in 242) are quite real compared to the likelihood of a snake causing your death (1 in 298,338; see, National Safety Council Report).

Again, our minds were designed by evolution to deal with life’s problems; the solutions obtained in the past remain with us today.