Were phobias genetically programmed into human beings for our survival?

All human traits are heritable, and some are evolutionary, as Steven Pinker and others have said. The question here is whether some rather extreme human fears have developed as “early warning sensors” during tens of thousands of years of human existence as hunter gatherers in small, intensely survival oriented, communities. Here’s a list of phobias for your review.

I’m not talking here about fears that are the result of neurotic displacement and need to be treated with psychological counseling, like little Hans. Rather, the more mundane and apparently quite widespread aversions to heights, closed spaces, cliffs, open areas, spiders, and what not.

(Incidentally, the inspiration for this piece comes from reading about MIT professor Nancy Hopkins’ extreme reaction to Larry Summers comments about possible genetic predispositions affecting the male/female mix of university science faculties. Arguing that there are absolutely no relevant male/female differences, she said that had she not walked out of the conference, she “would have either blacked out or thrown up.”

It’s hard to top the eloquence of her unconsciously and profoundly feminine response to Summers. In addition, I was listening to cockpit voice recorders just prior to crashes over at AirDisaster.com, and the one consistent element is that by the time you hear the mechanical “Pull…..Up” voice, it’s way too late. So, like Professor Hopkins, we all have deep programming that we are unaware of, and it is very helpful for human survival to have an early warning system. So maybe we do, and it’s one we are not conscious of.)

It is easy to imagine that in a pre-historic community of say, 200, people, having some people who were ultra-sensitive to cave-ins, unstable cliffs, wolves, spiders or snakes, blood, filth, or the potential attack threats from open areas, would be very useful to the survival of the community. This obvious fact has been noted in much of the professional literature on phobias.

What is missing is a study that determines the distribution of common phobias. It would be very interesting to see if the common and historically plausibly useful phobias are routinely well-distributed among humans. It would be interesting to know if humans of different ethnic groups, or from widely divergent geographic and clamactic condidtions have different phobia distributions. That would argue for their being evolutionary in nature. It would also be interesting to know which common and well-distributed phobias do not seem to have a plausible historical reason for existence as an early-warning system. Maybe, in those cases, the researchers aren’t looking hard enough.

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