Tuesday, August 03, 2010


The first snake I ever saw was on Brighton Promenade. I was twenty-two years old. It was an African rock python (Python sebae), if I remember correctly, and I posed for a photograph with it wrapped around me. Its handler had attracted a small crowd, all presumably thinking that his 'pet' posed no danger to them. (Why, otherwise, would it have been let out?) Not everyone stopped to investigate, though. Some people watched, with a mixture of apprehension and repulsion, from a safe distance; others took one glance and moved smartly on.

My next encounter was not quite such a relaxed affair. Five years later, while travelling with an American friend in Northern Thailand, I came within ten yards of a monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia) (Figure 4.1). No longer than a few feet in length, and with dull, brown skin, it looked none too threatening - until it raised its head, fanned out its neck and made an ominous noise. This time, a photo opportunity was not on the cards. My pal, anxious at the best of times, almost laid a duck egg. Without needing to confer, we turned and ran, and decided immediately against sleeping under the stars.

Figure 4.1: Meet Mr Naja kaouthia, better known as the monocled cobra

Copyright 2010 Heinz Klaus Thiesen

Our fear was well founded. The venom of this species contains an extremely potent neurotoxin (nerve poison). Very few bite victims survive. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can still see the thing and shudder at the thought of what might have been.

Many children, including my own, are fascinated, and quite fearless, when in contact with snakes in a 'safe' setting (Figure 4.2). Their reaction to meeting one, unexpectedly, in the wild, however, might well mimic my own several years ago.

Figure 4.2: Father and son with a six-year-old Boa constrictor

Copyright 2010 Suzanne Knipe

Most people, worldwide, are inherently wary of snakes. This is in spite of the majority of them having never encountered one in an uncontrolled environment. Some are utterly terrified. Others cannot even bear to look at pictures of snakes. Fear of this nature qualifies as phobia - ophidiophobia, to be precise.

Why, then, if actual danger is, in most cases, non-existent, is fear all but universal? Most modern living environments are, in this respect, perfectly safe. Parents do not warn their children to keep an eye out for snakes whenever they venture outdoors. There is no need. The answer can be explained only in the light of evolutionary biology.

The environment of our ape-like ancestors was significantly different from our own. The threat from snakes was, in many parts of the world, real and constant. Individuals who had innate ability to anticipate danger (with, for example, fast reflexes and sharp peripheral vision), along with the good sense to avoid anything wriggling along the ground, would have been more likely to survive than those who had not. Hence, their reproductive success would have reflected this advantage. The long-term effect is that those who reacted reflexively to snakes would have survived to produce a greater number of descendants.

Biological evolution is, overall, a slow process. Conversely, environmental change need not be. Humans, today, carry the snake-fearing genes of their ancestors, despite those same genes now bestowing little benefit in a world which has moved on. In other words, our 'old' genes still hold sway in our 'new' environment.

This leads us to a broader consideration of what determines all the other aspects of human behaviour. Where, indeed, would be the best place to begin?

Our DNA, that's where.

Copyright 2010 Paul Spradbery

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