How innate is a fear of snakes?
It’s an article of faith among those of us who mess around with snakes that a fear of snakes is something that is learned: a child sees a parent freaking out about a snake and figures it out from there.
But that may not be strictly accurate. About a decade ago I was visiting friends who had a fresh litter of baby boa constrictors (one of whom I would take home with me). Several of them were, shall we say, a little nippy. To my surprise, there was something about even a baby boa rearing, hissing and striking at me that triggered a primal corner of my brain. Whoa, I thought to myself: for a moment there I was a monkey in a jungle, afraid of being eaten.
Turns out there might be something to that. Snake detection theory argues that snakes were early predators on primates, and that snake predation selected us to evolve visual and other brain enhancements so that we could spot them faster. (Boggle at the idea that snakes made us smarter.) New research has found neurological evidence of this: pulvinar neurons in macaques respond more quickly to images of snakes than to other images, suggesting that this is deep, hardwired stuff. Article abstract. Via Kingsnake.com; see also io9’s excellent summary.