Evolved Fear of Sharks Prompts Front Page News

Published by timdean on

Today, roughly*:

  • 133 Australians died of cardiovascular disease
  • 116 died of cancer
  • 30 died from respiratory diseases
  • 24 died from injuries or external trauma, including 6 from suicide, 4 from falls and 2 from road accidents
  • 18 died from behavioural or mental disorders
  • 16 died as a result of nervous system disorders
  • 16 also died of metabolic diseases
  • 14 died of diseases of the digestive tract
  • 9 died from genitourinary diseases, mainly renal failure
  • 5 died from infections or parasites
  • 3 died from other causes
  • And 1 died from a shark attack

Yet, can you guess which made news internationally? Yep, the shark attack.

You're more likely to accidentally drown in the bathtub than be eaten by me.

It made news not because it was a rare occurrence – even though it is – because there were many other deaths that occurred today that could be counted as rare. It didn’t get news because it was common and preventable, because it’s not either of these things.

It got news because there’s something deep down in our monkey brain that finds the idea of being eaten by a predator to be a shocking and outrageous way to die. Individual deaths from modern ailments – from cardiovascular disease, cancer or infection – rarely rate a mention, and certainly don’t get reported worldwide.

A list of common human fears typically includes “heights, storms, large carnivores, darkness, blood, strangers, confinement, deep water, social scrutiny, and leaving home alone” because “these are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger” (Pinker, 1997).

Strikingly absent from this catalog of human fears are the things humans should be afraid of in contemporary environments. The sight of a car or a gun, for example, should strike far more fear into the heart of a modern human than does the sight of a snake, for cars and guns kill far more people than do snake bites. (Buller, 2005)

The moral of this story is that we should remember that we’re not much more than occasionally thoughtful primates – and we’re still more primates than thoughtful.

* Statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics document, Causes of Death, Australia, 2008


James Gray · 17th August 2010 at 9:43 pm

Americans are so disgusted by nature that they poison their bodies or burn them to ash rather than allow their corpses to be used as food for animals. Embalming is very popular here. (Watch six feet under).

Vincent · 17th August 2010 at 11:02 pm

I’m glad of your conclusions to this piece, and glad to be more of a primate than thoughtful. I think too, that there are many of us who would prefer to be eaten by a shark than die in the bathtub. It’s a more adventurous death, but obviously to be avoided till one’s ready to go. Over here in England, the talk is often of “assisted suicide”. They have a stuffy over-heated clinic in Switzerland where you can receive the fatal injection, surrounded by loved ones. I would prefer to go out in style and have the loved ones tip me over the side in shark-infested waters. When they saw the sea-water turn red, they’d know it was all over.

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