During the course of my research at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. This may not come as a surprise to those of you with children, or who actually remember being a child, but it seems that children really love animals with scary teeth. In this particular museum, the favourites seem to be a large stuffed crocodile, and a model T. rex head.
My PhD research involves getting 4- and 5-year-old children to photograph things they like in the museum, and then talk to me about the pictures. Two thirds of the children photographed this head. And when it was mentioned in interviews, children often told me that they liked it (it was sometimes a favourite), that they liked it’s sharp teeth, and that they had put their hands in its mouth or touched its teeth.
So the children talk about it as something scary, but in a fun way. Like Jurassic Park, they seem to know it isn’t real, but still appreciate it’s scariness, albeit in an entertaining manner.
But I saw something slightly different when I did observations in the gallery. Some children seemed genuinely scared of it. Parents would try to get children’s photos taken with the T. rex, and the children would back away, shake their heads, sometimes even cry. It seemed to be actually, genuinely frightening.
At one point, I saw some parents trying to get their little boy to go up to it, which he refused to do. I joined in the conversation, saying that I thought it was pretty scary (it had actually scared me earlier in the day — they had moved it so that it was now on the base of the T. rex skeleton, and in this new position it caught me unawares). The boy stopped to think about this. And then he decided on a course of action. He would subdue the beast. He reached into his pocked, took out a box of tic-tacs, and held up a sweet to the mouth of the T. rex.
I think there’s something really interesting going on with all of this. E. O. Wilson talks about Biophilia — the innate love of certain elements of nature that humans feel, due to our evolutionary history. For example, we are attracted to the landscapes that are most conducive to our survival, or to animals, which we needed to understand to be able to hunt. The flip-side is biophobia — our innate propensity to fear animals such as spiders and snakes, which were threatening to our survival.
So, because words are fun, I’ve coined the term biophobophilia to describe the situation above. In this word, I want to capture both the sense of children simultaneously loving and fearing scary creatures, but also, the sense that they actually enjoy their fear.
In fact, the fascination with scary animals makes perfect evolutionary sense. The children needed to avoid being eaten by these animals, but the way that humans (and other animals) stay safe, is by learning about our foes. Being nervous of something, whilst also being motivated to look at it and learn about it is actually a really effective way of making sure we don’t get eaten by it.
So while the children (sort of) know that the things they see in the museum can’t really eat them, in the dark recesses of their brain, biophobophila keeps these modern, urban children, who are more likely to be killed by a car than a crocodile, totally fascinated by big, sharp, scary teeth.