Evolutionary Psychology Watch: Why Do People Tend to Like Honey and Fear Spiders?

According to Heather Pringle, maybe, with regard to honey, it’s because it played a role in our evolution:

In a recent paper, Alyssa Crittenden, an anthropologist and behavioral ecologist, at the University of Nevada, points out that wild honey is one of nature’s most energy-rich foods. It is 80 to 95 percent sugar and, if left unprocessed, contains both protein and fat from bits of bee larvae. As a rule, hunter-gatherers struggle to find calories: a scoop of honey supplies a huge hit.

Crittenden, in the abstract to her journal article, writes the following:

It has been suggested that honey may have been an important food source for early members of the genus Homo, yet the importance of meat and savanna plant foods continue to be stressed as the most relevant foods in dietary reconstructions. Here, the importance of honey and bee larvae in hominin diets is explored. Ethnographic reports, examples of Paleolithic rock art, and evidence from non-human primates are used to show that early hominins likely targeted beehives using the Oldowan tool kit. The consumption of honey and bee larvae likely provided significant amounts of energy, supplementing meat and plant foods. The ability to find and exploit beehives using stone tools may have been an innovation that allowed early Homo to nutritionally out-compete other species and may have provided critical energy to fuel the enlarging hominin brain.

As to spiders, Anthony Gottlieb, in a recent New Yorker essay, writes this:

Textbooks in evolutionary psychology have proposed the hypothesis that the fear of spiders is an adaptation shaped by the mortal threat posed by their bites. In other words, we are descended from hominid wusses who thrived because they kept away from spiders. The idea is prompted by evidence that people may be innately primed to notice and be wary of spiders (as we seem to be of snakes).

It’s hard to argue with such explanations. They seem plausible. But, at least with regard to spiders, Gottlieb raises some doubt about tracing spider fear to a fairly recent hominid adaptation:

[T]here is no reason to think that spiders in the Stone Age were a greater threat to man than they are now—which is to say, hardly any threat at all. Scientists who study phobias and dislikes have come up with several features of spiders that may be more relevant than their bites, including their unpredictable, darting movements. Natural selection would have played some role in the development of any such general aversions, which may have their origins in distant species, somewhere far back down the line that leads to us.

In other words, with regard to spider fear, we don’t know. But then, what story do we tell ourselves about our spider fear? Do we fear them for their bites, for their darting behavior, for their ugliness–or for some combination of all of these?

And when it comes to honey, notice the “likely” and “may” qualifiers in Dr. Crittenden’s abstract. Given the veil hiding our evolutionary history from us, what do we really have to work with when we try to reconstruct it?

I suppose the answer is: sensible inference based in theory and (occasionally) evidence.

If the broad outlines of evolutionary theory are correct–and they surely are–it follows that our psychology must have been almost entirely shaped by successful reproductive and resource-getting strategies that were linked to rewards and aversions: people attracted to spiders and averse to eating honey were simply not as likely to survive as those attracted to honey and averse to spiders.

To those of us who are the descendants of honey lovers and spider haters, our orientations seem quite natural: ends in themselves. The sheer pleasure of honey is an end in itself; the sheer terror on encountering a black widow in a bathtub is an end in itself. They seem to require no further explanations for us, as individuals. The reason we like honey and loath spiders is obvious.

But here’s the truth: what’s really going on in us is always something linked to either sexual success or resource winning. Evolutionary psychology is the 21st century’s answer to Freud: there’s a truth lurking beneath our consciousness, but that truth is not an Oedipus or Electra Complex, it’s a Darwin complex–an evolution complex.

That, at any rate, is the premise of evolutionary psychology: given that humans didn’t just pop onto the scene out of nowhere, fully formed as in the Genesis story, there must be some story underlying our development; a story linking desires and aversions back to fucking and territory. Even our Australopithecine ancestors resided in a Jane Austen novel, they just weren’t ironic about it.

The question then becomes, what do parents tell their children, and what do teachers and professors tell their students, when asked such a question as, “Why do people tend to like honey and avoid spiders?”

Traditionally, we have always had etiological narratives for dealing with such questions. In Genesis 3, for example, there is a tidy explanation for why people work so hard, why women suffer pain in childbirth, and why snakes are legless: these all have to do with the curse of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

And evolutionary psychologists, likewise, tend to have tidy “just-so stories” to draw from as well. With regard to honey and spiders, for example, the fast answer is that the feelings you associate with “yummy” and “yikes!” are linked (somehow) to your ancestors’ survival. If evolution is true, what other explanation is there?

But the devil is in the details, and there’s the rub: how do we distinguish the logically possible from what actually happened? There are many logically possible ways to explain a thing, but there is only one way a thing actually came to be. The conundrum here of discovering the truth, absent clear lines of evidence, seems nearly impossible.

In light of this, do we simply throw up our hands and, like Socrates, profess to know nothing?

Maybe.

Contra etiological story-generators of previous eras and evolutionary psychologists of today, perhaps the right answer to all origin questions of the psychological sort is, “We live in darkness.”

But this seems too easy, even smug. Surely there are errors of inference made every day by evolutionary psychologists. How can there not be? And surely a good deal of what is “explained” by evolutionary psychologists speaks more to the psychology of the explainers–and of the assumptions that adhere to our contemporary culture as a whole–than to what actually happened in the past that brings us to today.

But I still think we need to try to provide explanations, however tentative. Absent falling into silence, what else can we do? After all, every animal alive today, including the human animal, has inherited mating and resource-getting strategies from its ancestors (to be more or less cautious; more or less cooperative; more or less aggressive, etc.). And there are some sensible and plausible things that we can say about these strategies and how and why they most likely evolved in this or that species. So we should say these plausible things, even as we try not to drop our qualifiers.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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