Last week I posted a picture of a wind scorpion (camel spider) on Facebook to “celebrate” the first sighting of one in Georgia.
Responses were quick and visceral. Most took the form of “NOPE” or “Kill it with fire!”
I didn’t have this reaction to the picture. Didn’t creep me out. Don’t get me wrong—if I saw one racing toward me, I’d definitely grab a bystander and throw them on top of it. But just the idea and image of one was more fun than freaky.
I chalk it up to personal experience and preference (and being a kid who played with bugs), but it got me thinking about what humans find repulsive or cute and why. As a writer who often employs non-human and sometimes non-anthropomorphized creatures, I have a vested interest in understanding the impulse.
We all know the basics with respect to what we find creepy or repulsive. Many spiders are venomous or dangerous, and as a species we’ve learned to fear and avoid them. Same with snakes (though I find them quite cute).
Spiders are also as different in physical form from humans as you can get. The more alien something looks, the more repulsive we find it. Eight eyes and eight limbs instead of two and four. Exoskeletons, no bones, giant bulbous abdomens, etc.
But this leaves me with a problem: why are jumping spiders so damn cute?
If you don’t think jumping spiders are adorable, don’t worry. It just means something inside you is broken. With professional help, you may still be able to lead a healthy, fulfilling life.
But I want to understand the why. How does an intelligent 21st-century adult begin research into this topic?
He googles “why are jumping spiders cute?” of course.
This didn’t yield any answers, but it did result in a ton of images of jumping spiders (see below) AND an adorable video of a jumping spider drying herself on a woman’s shirt. (I have no idea if it is really a “her”)
So I turned instead to a more general “why are things cute?”
That got me some articles that more or less confirmed what I had heard over the years. Evolutionary biology is a big part of the answer. Our babies are helpless when born, requiring care, and we learned to think of them as cute in order to give that care. They have some key characteristics that specifically trigger the “awww” response, like disproportionately large eyes, small noses, short limbs, soft bodies.
It’s easy to see this replicated in baby mammals like kittens, puppies, and bear cubs. I also happen to find baby reptiles cute, like little turtles, snakes and lizards.
But baby reptiles don’t have the big eyes/small noses/soft bodies thing going. So where does that come from? The perception of helplessness. Ever seen a video of sea turtles emerging from the nest and flapping their way down the beach? Those halting, jerky movements by an infant animal are transferrable to the nurturing instinct in many humans.
Which brings me back to jumping spiders. I’m not alone in thinking they’re cute. So where does it come from?
Based on a very unscientific application of the above characteristics to these adorable spiders, I think it comes down to:
Nature of motion
A perception of softness
A perception of helplessness
Let’s break it down.
Jumping spiders tend to be quite tiny. They just look harmless. Most people, I think, understand instinctively that jumping spiders lack the kind of bite that can hurt them. Most don’t even look like they can break the skin.
Make a jumping spider two inches long, though, and it’s a different story.
Nature of motion:
Most spiders can make/dangle from webs and race toward you on extremely long legs. It seems to suggest a sinister confidence. But jumping spiders tend to just sit there, looking bewildered. When they do move, it’s an adorable straight-up bounce to another location. Their movements suggest a constant state of comical panic.
Jumping spiders have eight eyes like all spiders, but it’s the unique configuration that makes them cute. Their two biggest forward-facing eyes are so much larger than the rest, it makes the others almost disappear by comparison. It also gives them a look of perpetual surprise.
Abnormally large, forward-facing eyes is a key component of cuteness. But can you have too much of a good thing? As it happens, yes. Witness the tarsier:
A Perception of Softness:
Jumping spiders are often fuzzier than other spiders. Tarantulas also have the fuzzy thing to some degree, but jumpers can have it so densely that it looks like fur. This doesn’t mean it has a soft body like a kitten, but it can create the illusion of one.
I can’t say for sure that jumpers have smaller or shorter legs than most spiders, but it looks like they do. They keep the legs folded in most of the time, and it gives the impression of its legs being shorter than its body. That’s a key characteristic in infants and baby animals we find cute.
A Perception of Helplessness:
I may be forcing this on them. Jumping spiders aren’t helpless, of course, but given the tiny size, big eyes, and panicked movements, I can’t help but see them as more vulnerable than other spiders and insects. I’m always rooting for the little guys.
Let’s tally it up for the jumping spider:
Relatively tiny: yes
Big eyes: yes
Looks helpless: yes
Relatively short limbs: yes
I don’t think I actually proved anything here, but it was fun to get lost in the jumping spider world. I’ll leave you with this link, a series of photos of jumping spiders wearing water droplets as hats. Also this one, which details how to go out and find one of your very own.
Do you find them cute? Do their giant submarine-porthole eyes and eight furry legs get your biological clock ticking?