I have a distinct memory, dating to my early childhood, of my father being surprised by a colorful snake in a pile of firewood outside our home. I remember bands of orange. A milk snake? Thirty years later I wouldn't swear to it, but—as snakes tend to do—this one lingers as a mental image.
I'm not aware of any other phobias my father possesses, and I never witnessed him be unkind to animals, but I learned young about his fear of snakes. After lurching back in startle, he retrieved a shovel. My father didn't bash the snake to death. But he did take the snake up in the scoop of the shovel and catapult it high and far into the small patch of woods that abutted the property. I don't know what happened to that snake, and I never saw it again. I like to think it lived to tell other snakes an amazing tale of soaring through the treetops before landing safely on a pile of cushy forest moss and leaves. Or it may have died on impact.
The next episode of The Creature Show is devoted to snakes, so at the start of the project I delved briefly into the scientific literature on snake fear, which is a very real phenomenon. A majority of Americans—51 percent—report being afraid of snakes, which makes them the most fearsome of all creatures, at least in the eyes of the average citizen willing to answer a phone call from Gallup.
It does indeed seem to be the case that snakes, both the venomous and constricting kind, were major predators of humanity’s early primate ancestors. This is, likely, the reason many of us still harbor snake fear—it was an evolutionary advantage to be aware of snakes and to stay away from them. Furthermore, some of that old snake-adverse wiring may still be kicking around our brains. Studies have found that three-year-olds of the human variety can pick out the image of a snake from a crowded picture faster than they can pick out the image of a flower or frog, and other studies show that children learn faster to be afraid of snakes than they learn to fear other objects.
So the long and short of it is yes, you're forgiven for perhaps not liking snakes, and it's completely healthy and normal to not like them, and maybe even it's an evolutionary virtue.
But an interesting question follows from all this. Are animals we like more deserving of our consideration and conservation efforts than animals we wish would stay far away? This seems like a straightforward question, but it's kind of thorny. Contemplate, for example, the mosquito.
Certainly, we can all agree, mosquitoes are horrible, and doubly so since the recent spread of the Zika virus. But the science writer David Quammen has argued, convincingly, that mosquitoes are “one of the great ecological heroes of planet Earth. If you consider rainforest preservation.”
Tropical rainforests cover a small fraction of the Earth’s surface, but are home to a majority of our plant and animal species. While much of the rest of the planet has been paved over, the rainforests and their rich biodiversity have largely persisted. Why? Because “ten million generations of jungle-loving, disease-bearing, blood-sucking mosquitoes” have made the rainforests virtually uninhabitable to humans, writes Quammen. “Tropical forests are elaborately booby-trapped against disruption.”
Maybe Quammen’s completely wrong. I think it depends on how you value the persistence of biodiversity on Earth, versus the undeniable suffering that mosquito-borne illnesses cause millions of humans each year, versus the negative effect the destruction of the rainforest would have on global climate, versus how nice it would be to have a vacation home in the middle of the rainforest, versus the threat of devastating zoonotic diseases being unleased if humans conquer the rainforest, etc. etc. In short, it’s complicated. But Quammen’s argument in defense of mosquitoes got me thinking that maybe the reputation of a snake could also be rehabilitated by a counterintuitive leap.
Here’s all I’ve come up with: The best way to think of a snake is as a worthy adversary, deserving of respect and admiration, though falling short of cuddles.
To this point, Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, offers a compelling theory that the threat of a venomous snake lurking in the grass is directly responsible for the development of superior eyesight in early primates and—consequently—humans. It seems that primates that were surrounded by poisonous snakes evolved much better vision than primates that lived in areas with few venomous snakes. Lemurs in Madagascar, for example, have terrible eyesight, the worst in the primate world. It's no coincidence, says Isbell, that there are no venomous snakes in Madagascar.
So I ask you: Will you be glad to watch the TV screen tonight or read a book? Thank a snake.
But I wouldn’t want to suggest that the true value of the snake is that it bestowed ancient evolutionary superpowers that have allowed us to watch Seinfield, or that it squeezes and gobbles untold numbers of mice and rats, or anything of the sort. None of these answers are satisfying.
I don’t in fact have an answer to the transcendent measure of a snake's worth, at least not one of my own design. But I did finding something concise and thought-provoking in the writing of the aforementioned Quammen. He wrote:
“Some simple minds would say: Life is life.”
Come celebrate the release of The Creature Show snake episode on April 15 at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey. It’s a party, and it’s also a fundraiser for future episodes. More details here: http://bit.ly/1pdbDUR