We are born with a fear of spiders. It is in our DNA. We inherit our fear of spiders and it is not learned. Although not everyone has this fear because they unlearn it or manage it. I refer to a study which came to this conclusion below, but before I do so I think it is fair to say that there is an argument that, for the same reason, a significant percentage of people fear cats (ailurophobia). Although, this fear has been removed largely because of domestication.
Humans evolved in Africa. Spiders in Africa presented a real threat to the survival of Africans. As a consequence it became necessary for people to be able to spot spiders very efficiently. It is said that a fear of spiders (arachnophobia), which is the most common phobia affecting around 4% of people is, in fact, a survival instinct and of benefit to the person rather than a weakness.
Venomous spiders with venom specifically designed for vertebrates have inhabited Africa for tens of millions of years.
Humans were always at a risk of encountering venomous spiders. Even when they weren’t fatal, bites were debilitating which would incapacitate the person for quite a long time which in turn would jeopardise the person’s survival.
A research study found that spiders were spotted by people “uniquely fast”, even when their shape was distorted. The detection rate and the speed of detection of spiders became significant in respect of natural selection and therefore the evolution of humans.
In a separate study it was found that even three-year-old children can spot spiders faster than other “random neutral objects”.
My opinion is that the same sort of process could exist with respect to the wild cats. Large wild cats would have presented a substantial threat to people in Africa and in fact they still do despite their massively decreased numbers.
The general opinion is that a fear of cats is learned, usually through a bad experience by a child. But I wonder whether there is more to it than that and that an underlying, inherited fear is one reason for some of the cat abuse that we commonly read about on the Internet.
The study was conducted by Joshua New and Tamsin German of Columbia University in New York.