Friday, 16 October 2009

The wide-eyed and the legless

Scared of snakes? Scared may be too strong a word for most people but I can't believe there are many who aren't uneasy when they think of the slinky, scaly, sharp-toothed creatures. Just imagine one slithering past you now - it should make your skin crawl. Why though should?

Well, a new book The Fruit, The Snake and The Tree, reviewed in the TLS, convincingly argues that serpents have been bosom enemies of primates long enough for primates - including hominids - to have evolved in various ways that help avoid the critters. This is known as the Snake Detection Theory, another of those intriguing ideas, such as the Aquatic Ape Theory, that seek to explain how we came to evolve to be what we are.

Snake Detection Theory appears to have a lot of evidence in its favour - from anthropology, neuroscience, palaeontology and psychology. There are a few specific characteristics that provide support, to be found in our primate cousins as well as in ourselves. An instinctive fear of snakes, for instance. Monkeys go nuts, so to speak, at film of other monkeys encountering snakes - even if they've never seen a snake before.

Another feature is what is technically known as declarative pointing. The emergence of this pointing in our distant ancestors - which declared 'look out, there's a snake!' (expletive deleted) - may have provided the first foundation of language.

There's one neurological characteristic we still retain that I find particularly intriguing: it seems serpent-driven evolution shaped our sight so that we’re much better at following a point in our visual periphery than our visual centre, and while looking down rather than up. That is, we've evolved to keep an eye on where the snake may be without having to directly look for it. The meaning of 'keeping an eye' on something becomes a little richer in this light.

I find this feature so interesting as it is surely what makes our team-based ball games work in the way they do. For instance, in rugby - a game I've played and watched a lot - I know that being peripherally aware of other players and the ball is crucial. Without it, the game simply wouldn't flow. If players only saw what was in front of them there would be little passing or kicking, hand-offs, avoidance of tackles - in fact, little of anything that you couldn't do without looking at it full on (some would say this game of tunnel-vision bashing already exists: it's called Rugby League). It also explains why the 'up-and-under' can be so effective - we aren't as good at looking up as we are at looking down.

In sports involving teams and a ball, the most prized players are generally those who display the ability to 'see' what's around them without really looking. In rugby, Mark Ring was the best player I've ever seen do this - passing into a space that he seemingly couldn't have known was there and which would immediately be occupied by one of his team-mates. To take a couple of examples from football, I would guess that Pele and, more recently, Thierry Henry both had this quality to burn.

So, putting to one side for a moment the regrettable Eden incident as well as the history of predation and poisoning, we have reason to be grateful to serpents. Without them we'd be stuck with bash-it-up-the-middle monotony in our ball games. And we wouldn't be able to enjoy those sublime moments provided by the rare snake-sensitive sporting visionary.


Nige said...

Very interesting - I wonder if there's a comparable theory to explain fear of spiders. I think the Aquatic Ape explanation is that their movement recalls the scuttling of crabs, an enemy of shore-dwelling hominids - and especially their young, hence the female bias of arachnophobia. Don't know it if er holds water though...

Bunny Smedley said...

Nige, someone who studies primates (friend-of-a-friend) recently told me that several types of monkey are born with a fear of spiders, or in fact anything that looks like a spider - and that human babies also dislike spiders from birth, exhibiting anxiety reponses when confronted with even a two-dimension picture of a spider.

As for me, I quite like snakes - but then I'm useless at sport, too, and am famously oblivious to my periphery, especially if it involves anything requiring urgent action. Maybe I'm just very highly evolved? ;-)

Sophie King said...

Years ago this talent for being, as you put it, peripherally aware was described to me by a WW2 fighter pilot. He called it 'the ace factor', a sixth sense which separated the merely talented pilots from the exalted few.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, it seems there's an evolutionary theory for everything these days. So why didn't we develop eyes on the sides of our head, like birds or countless animal species, so we could avoid snakes and play Rugby (Union) even better? God's a Rugby League fan, obviously! ;-)

Sean said...

Interesting theory, I have not heard of that one before.

I lived in Western Australia for quite some time and snakes are an everyday encounter, some very deadly indeed (strangely enough the only place I have been bite by a snake is Cornwall by an adder) so you sort of get comfortable with them, they just become something else to deal with, my guess is living in cities is where our fear comes from, I used to have a massive fear of Rats, but now living in the hills, especially in winter, they just dont bother me.

If you have ever been hunting or even been hunted yourself in a paint ball game, you will know you experience another level of self awareness, and I suggest this is the more likely origin of our anticipation skills.

Snakes at the end of the day don't hunt humans, we just get in the way.

When we talk about intelligence I think what we are really talking about is self awareness, the ability to see over the horizon, anticipate the future ect, these are undoubtedly hunting skills.

The monkey seeing another monkey and relating to its fears is a measure of its intelligence, I don't think its a measure of its fear of snakes.

My Wife and Girls seem to start weeping when the other idiots on X factor start weeping, maybe you should send a team of boffins around to work out why?

Peter Burnet said...

Another feature is what is technically known as declarative pointing. The emergence of this pointing in our distant ancestors - which declared 'look out, there's a snake!' (expletive deleted) - may have provided the first foundation of language.

Indeed, when one listens very closely to Hamlet's soliloquy, one can hear faint echos of a distant ancestor exclaiming: "Uurrggghhh!" at a passing python.

Gaw, we have to talk.

worm said...

personally I dont mind snakes at all - but spiders - eek! even looking at a photo of one can give me the jitters.

I remember reading about the spatial awareness you are talking about in the context of artificial intelligence, with a scientist saying that its practically impossible to program this sort of 'sixth sense' into a computer, and that in the future this will be one of the big stumbling blocks in the creation of a realistic cyborg

this spatial awareness in sport etc works in the same way that we can instantly recognise a shape, even if it is not the actual thing itself (ie. our brains are able to instantly identify the Playboy bunny as a rabbit even though it does not actually look anything like a rabbit - computers can't do this)

Gaw said...

Nige: I haven't come across that aspect of the AAT. But why would crabs be our enemies? They're delicious. By extension, shouldn't I have inherited an urge to cover spiders in mayonnaise and a squirt of lemon?

Bunny: I think I saw something like this on the Robert Winston programme about babies: spider drawings along with simple representations of faces got a reaction. Re your lack of evolutionary response to snakes: perhaps your ancestors are from Ireland?

Sophie: I was thinking about other ways this neurological feature manifests itself nowadays and all I could think of was driving. But as you say being a fighter pilot - when sight was the pilots main means of detecting the enemy - must have been a supreme use of it.

Gadjo: I think you should do some research into your observation, which I will label the Marty Feldman Non-Ubiquity Problem.

Sean: I think you'd have to become an evolutionary biologist and spend a few decades researching to firm these ideas up! But nevertheless I'm sure hunting has had a massive impact on how we operate.

I've decided to leave the further mysteries of X-Factor to others now.

Peter: Surely the subtext to most of life is 'oh feck, there's a snake!'

Worm: I think there's a distinction between peripherally seeing something (which may be mechanically replicated?) and interpreting its shape and significance. But the latter must be a fiendishly difficult thing to replicate in robots - the meaning of symbols must have so much cultural and social input as well as evolutionary.

Nige said...

Land crabs I think, Gaw - evil bastards, they'd eat a baby if they got the chance...

Gaw said...

Had a bit of trouble posting this so try again...

See what you mean now Nige. Here's a horrific land crab attack, which may give us a pointer as to why we domesticated certain animals):

And here's some possibly contemporary footage of what our ancestors had to put up with (well, it's in black and white):

Ah, the temptations of tooling around on YouTube, etc.

Sean said...

Sorry links dont seem to be working thru Opera, so I have only just read the article.

Cats have very good deep field eyesight, they too evolved with snakes, They don't do too well in Australia against the snakes!

Snakes dont hunt humans, constrictors can and do kill humans but thats chance encounters, and we dont avoid each other, Its a truism in Australia that very home has a snake in the loft, and they often do.

And you are not going to need good eyesight to spot a constrictor.

From what I have seen Monkeys behave like humans towards snakes, not really fear but fascination, just like humans whole troops come out to see.

Its all a bit too neat for my liking, like gun,steel and germs a grat narrative, but I will give it a go.

150k a year snake bite deaths is not a figure to get excited over.The same amount die everyday on planet earth.