Monday, 5 December 2011

Dungeons and ... Darwin?

Evolutionary psychology meets the Monster Manual in a new book by Paul A. Trout, "Deadly Powers." According to the author's summary in an article for Salon, we can explain the most awesome and nearly universally imagined monster around, the dragon, as a confluence of biologically prepared fears of the three main hunters of our tree-dwelling primate ancestors: snakes, raptor birds, and feline predators. These have armed the dragon and kindred monsters - griffons, couatls, and kamadans (OK, not really kamadans) - with their wings, scales, and fangs.

Zak S's Kamadan could scare the pants off a loris.
I haven't read the book, but the author's comments led me to think some more about the evolutionary approach to psychology. I'm no stranger to this topic and I've found it useful in my own writings to think about how emotions serve useful functions for individuals and social groups.But there's a difference between my functional perspective, and the claim that a phenomenon is biologically prepared and inherited from a distant past. I make no claims about this genetic route of behavioral transmission because I don't study genes.

There are two problems with making inferences about the genes from animal behavior (some monkeys have distinct calls for all three predators) and present-day human behavior. Advocates of evolutionary psychology claim that their method is scientific; considering conditions in the ancestral environment of humanity, they  deduce what behaviors were adaptive then, and then test the hypothesis that those behaviors have survived in the modern day. But ...

1. Which ancestral environment are we talking about? The bird-snake-cat theory traces us back to small tree-dwelling creatures. Others refer to our time on the ancestral savannah. There may have been an aquatic period in there.

2. There is always an escape clause if we don't find that a behavior has survived from those times: it must have disappeared because it was no longer adaptive. In actual fact, what happens is psychologists find a phenomenon that exists in modern humans, and then try to explain it in terms of what might have been adaptive in one of those environments, or a similar behavior in an animal species. With this kind of hindsight bias, there are all kind of ways to stumble across a phenomenon that has a closer, better explanation in terms of cultural adaptation.

So take the prevalence of mythological monsters, with their snake-bird-cat aspect. The more straightforward answer is that lions, tigers and ocelots roamed over most of the planet's surface two thousand years ago, and they were scary. Birds and snakes possess magic and strange means of movement, so they naturally tend to have cultic significance even if they're not imagined as huge, and there are enough crocodiles in our African past to explain dragons more prosaically. Why propose special genetic baggage held over from tree-shrews, when cultural concerns are more flexible, also adapt to survival concerns, and explain differences as well as similarities in the world's myths?

A better candidate for a genetic adaptation is the way a few very specific small animals attract phobias - irrational mixtures of fear and disgust that serve as a footnote to the generally useful rule, "if it's bigger than you, run away." The most common targets of animal phobias are snakes and spiders, a tendency that occurs universally, and has obvious survival value in avoiding poison bites.

The fear-disgust mix also translates to "weird" or "horrifying" and explains why snakes and spiders, rather than birds or cats, are the mainstays (together with dead things and tentacles) of the weird fantasy genre. While the griffon can get a makeover as the most noble beast, there's always going to be something sinister about the giant flying snake.


  1. psychologists find a phenomenon that exists in modern humans, and then try to explain it in terms of what might have been adaptive in one of those environments

    This also seems to be the main method involved in writing folklore...
    I'm not a big fan of ev psych - it should lead to the world's most serious-minded anthropology and ethnography - if just one culture in the world can be found that isn't bothered by snakes (I suggest there are several) then an evolutionary source for ophidiophobia can be discounted, right? Unless (and this would be the holy grail) interbreeding with persons from that cultural group passes some distinctive snake-related behaviour to the children. Meanwhile, anthropologists themselves are quietly giving up on the idea of bounded cultures...

    Tentacle horror is a really curious one. I wonder how much of this can be traced directly to Lovecraft, and how much of his inspiration can be traced directly to the Permian and Cantabrian Seas dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History (now, alas, destroyed). There's a nice little Freudian/Jungian tangle in the story that Jules Verne knew about the existence of giant squid from the reports of whalers who had seen enormous sucker marks on sperm whales - so monster-hunting provokes guilt and violence-horror that conjures up a tentacled nemesis... which happens to fit the kraken, who just might be a remembered (but not "ancestral environment") threat to seafarers. But then, the tentacles of the kraken are poetically quite close to the often-expressed power of waves and weeds to pull mariners down into the deep.

    One more thought: how universal is dragon-horror, I wonder? Often, flying snakes are friendly, wise - dangerously powerful but capable of transferring that power to humans. Borges, alas, is no help. He liked labyrinths but was bored by dragons. If only the game had been called Dungeons and Libraries he might have played it.

  2. ...if dragons are part-raptor, why do they have bat wings?
    ...also, most of the really deadly spiders are native to the Americas or Australia, right? But we collectively have a wildly exaggerated idea of how dangerous spider bites are in general. I'm wondering how much spider horror might be an early modern invention. I can attest that my daughter was not born with it, but developed it around the age of 4.

    Sorry, I'll stop now.

  3. I think I'd be slightly more afraid of being incinerated alive in addition to being swooped down upon and then bit and clawed, myself.


    "...if dragons are part-raptor, why do they have bat wings?"

    That is most likely because an artist is using an aesthetically analogous structure as a guide for the illustration (or limited in their ability to draw feathers and scales...).

    Pre-18th century, comparative anatomy wasn't agreed upon, let alone widely accepted, so if the monster was represented with wings, leathery or feathery, it was likely a cultural choosing (never mind them being vestigial or not...).

  4. @biopunk: that's fine as far as "it needs wings" goes, but it rather speaks against the specific power of birds of prey to screw with our subconscious. Why not then insect wings or flippers or whatever?

    @Roger: I see I've rather missed the point of ev psych - the idea is that it's easier to teach a monkey to fear a snake than to fear a car, right? So something in the monkey recognises the snake and attaches your fear lesson to it. I can see that, and if our lamprey-ancestors were scared of sharks then we might be scared of them too, as long as that phobia didn't suffer negative selection. But how would you ever know... unless somehow you isolated the gene for galeophobia and could turn it off? ...and somehow that gene had the same effect in lampreys as it does in us...

  5. > I can attest that my daughter was not born with it, but developed it around the age of 4.

    This late-ish arrival is very characteristic of the emotion of disgust. Normally we're not disgusted by poisonous things - just afraid - but it seems that for small crawly things, the "poisonous" and "disease-bearing" adaptations fuse together in some way, precisely because not all environments have poisonous insects.

    > So something in the monkey recognises the snake and attaches your fear lesson to it.

    Finding out, in humans, which fear lessons are "prepared" turns out to be trickier than expected. Angry faces seem to do it, as do the aforementioned snakes and spiders. The problem with one of these evolutionary fears is you have to catch it out being irrational. We very well may be prepared to fear tigers, but people are going to be afraid of a tiger anyway because it makes goddamn sense to fear a tiger.

  6. @Richard: Probably because there are no winged insects that are large enough to fly off with us, or our livestock, as prey. We'd have little association with that meme, aside from the suspiciously named dragonfly. (Dragonflies generally being sinister in the West, again culturally, the opposite of the East...)

    As to the flippers, the homology might be there, but again, nothing mighty with "flippers" drops out of the sky upon us, either.

    In each case, there is no general "fear" associated with the animals that exhibited those traits in the past, so we don't fear them now.

    Seeing a raptor pluck a hare off the ground, a sparrow out of (or a fish up into) the sky, is still impressive to us because we can associate the meme of being punctured, pulled from where we were a moment before, and then being picked apart or, mercifully, falling to our deaths, as being undesirable.

    We can see that same potential end in a dragon.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. you have to catch it out being irrational.
    It's not so easy to take serious account of both the "ancestral" environment and the current one, I think. Is it "rational" to be scared of tigers these days, when the only time you're going to encounter one is by deliberately seeking it out, either in a zoo or a larger "natural park"? What about sharks? Your actuarial risk from them is extremely small - most people have never encountered one except behind glass or on a TV screen - and yet the fear of the image of the shark seems if anything like it might be getting stronger as sharks themselves retreat.

  9. Even if the tiger is in a zoo it's good sense to have an aversive reaction to falling in the tiger pit. A trait that is constantly being selected for ...