Who is spinning a web? Barbara ponders a connection between spiders and tongue-ties
Published in 1947 by King Penguin, I have fond memories of enjoying the pictures while my father told me facts to entertain his little daughter, and I’ve liked spiders ever since. When I chanced upon this crumbling book — and it really did fall into my hands — I opened it just after reading an assertion on social media that cutting tongue-ties was a practice stretching back to the Bible: as if its longstanding repetition down the ages somehow justifies it today…
In this foxed, but still pleasing to look at, little volume, I read that in his Natural History of Spiders and Other Curious Insects (1736), 18th century spider enthusiast Eleazer Albin wrote, ‘I have cured several children [of malaria] by hanging a large spider confined in a box about their necks, reaching to the pit of their stomachs.’ Two centuries earlier, such spider amulets had been praised as a cure for fevers by sages on the authority of Dioscorides and Pliny, so as early as the first century AD. In the 18th century, ‘swallowing a spider gently bruised and wrapped up in a raisin or spread upon bread and butter’ was thought to fix a variety of health issues.
Cases of blind adherence to Ancient Authority in preference to common sense and the evidence of one’s eyes serve as examples of the state of affairs referred to in 1762 by Sir Thomas Browne in his Pseudodoxia Epidemica, ‘The mortallest enemy unto Knowledge, and that which hath done the greatest execution upon truth, hath been a peremptory adhesion unto Authority, and more especially, the establishing of our belief upon the dictates of Antiquity…’
As ancient authority has become discredited, the tendency has been for the pendulum sometimes to swing too far in the opposite direction. Conclusions based on isolated experience or hasty observation are apt to gain acceptance far too easily. The latest opinion is not always the best, but it can usually secure a following, and experience shows that fallacies of today are nearly as difficult to eradicate as the ancient ones.
As I read these words days before I was about to stand on a stage to tell 500 midwives that the current epidemic of tongue-tie is no more than a modern ‘unjustified enthusiasm’, I might have concluded (were I a tad more credulous) that my dad had reached out from beyond the grave to place that book in my hands, but then serendipity is like that isn’t it?
Hoffmann, T. C., & Del Mar, C. (2017). Clinicians’ expectations of the benefits and harms of treatments, screening, and tests. JAMA Internal Medicine, 177(3), 407. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.8254 (We can’t trust clinicians’ perceptions about the benefits and harms of surgical interventions. Unjustified enthusiasm for treatment.)