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The BIBLE and The COBRA

HOW THE BIBLE REVISED THE BRITANNICA

Anonymous

(Investigator 94, 2004 January)
 
 

SNAKES ARE DEAF

For centuries Western science considered snakes to be deaf.

For example:

 

THE BIBLE

Psalm 58 says:

The wicked go astray from the womb,
they err from their birth speaking lies.
They have venom like the venom of a serpent,
like the deaf adder that stops its ear,
so that it does not hear the voice of charmers
or of the cunning enchanter. (58:3-4)


The "deaf adder" is probably the cobra. The Scripture implies that it can hear but is deaf when it "stops its ear". The comparison is with "the wicked" who have the ability to hear but do not listen to counsel. They in effect "stop" their ears. For the comparison with the cobra to be valid the cobra too must be able to hear but sometimes "stops its ear" and does not react to the charmer.

The implication that cobras can hear put 20th century Christian writers into a quandry particularly after 1923 when science seemed conclusive:

The most complete set of hearing experiments ever conducted on snakes – and these were principally on rattlesnakes – were made in 1923. They concluded that rattlesnakes are deaf, in the usual sense of the word, and that no rattler ever heard another's rattle. (Klauber 1982)


George Cansdale (Animals of Bible Lands 1970) shows the Bible to be accurate in hundreds of statements about animals. However, in the case of the cobra Cansdale failed:  

It is now agreed that all snakes are deaf, though they have some capacity to sense vibrations received through the ground, and the charmer holds their attention by the movement of his pipe, not its music. (p. 206)


Anyone can observe that snakes lack external ears. The "ear" in Psalm 58 must be an internal "ear". If snakes are deaf we would not expect them to have an "ear" – that is an internal "ear". Therefore, we have two questions:

1. Do snakes have an internal ear?
2. Can snakes hear airborne sounds?

 
 

THE NEW YORK TIMES 1954

The New York Times (1954 January 10 Section 4 p. 9) suggested cobras hear but the evidence is anecdotal rather than scientific:

Are Snakes 'Charmed' by Music?

Cartoonists often show a monstrous reptile weaving to and fro in front of a snake charmer who is fingering a musical instrument.

Zoologists have scoffed. Snakes do not have a highly developed sense of hearing, some said. Others have maintained that snakes are stone deaf. How could serpents be "charmed" by music, they ask.

Support for the effectiveness of snake charming, and the auditory acuteness of serpents in general, appeared last week, in, of all places, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Work With Cobras

Dr. David I. Macht, research pharmacologist of the Mount Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, is one of the world's leading authorities on cobra snake venom. (Cobra venom is an accepted medication, in blood disorders for instance.)

Dr. Macht reported that in working with cobras and cobra venom he became acquainted with a number of Hindu physicians, well educated, and from different parts of India. All agreed that cobras respond to some musical tones, from musical pipes or fifes.


Some forms of music excite the animals more than other forms, the physicians reported. Indian children, playing in the dark in the countryside, are even warned not to sing lest their sounds attract cobras, he said.

Deaf Adders

Dr. Macht commented that Shakespeare, who repeatedly referred to serpents as deaf (as in "King Henry VI," part 2, act 3, scene 2: "What, art thou, like the adder, waxen deaf?") merely repeated a common misunderstanding.

On the other hand Dr. Macht said, the psalmist was right who implied conversely, in Psalm 58, Verse 5, that serpents can hear:

Their poison is like the poison of serpents;
They are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;
Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers,
Charming never so wisely.

Contrary to the claims of some naturalists, Dr. Macht said, snakes are "Charmed" by sounds, not by movements of the charmer. Revise the textbooks, the physicians recommended.

 


 

SNAKES HEAR LOW FREQUENCIES

By the 1970s some sources acknowledged that snakes are not "stone deaf" but hear low-frequency sounds. For example:
 


The Bible implies that the snake hears the "voice of the charmer." A singing charmer might be meant rather than an instrument-playing charmer. Either way the frequency range of the notes – whether sung or played – is relevant.
 

FREQUENCIES OF MUSICAL NOTES


In music the notes are written on sets of five lines called a "staff" or a "stave". The frequency of Middle C is 262 hertz. The F on the top line of the Treble Staff is 698 hertz. The G on the lowest line of the Bass Staff is 98 hertz. This, as shown later, is the frequency range in which snakes can hear.

Most music lies in the range 73 to 1175 hertz. The male speaking voice is about 150 hertz, the female speaking voice 239 hertz. The bass singing voice goes down to 70 hertz, the soprano rises to 1050 hertz.
 
 

HIGH COMMISSION OF INDIA

An inquiry by B Stett to the High Commission of India in 1991 gave the information that snake charmers of India use an instrument called in Hindi a "Been".

 

R.N. ACHARYA
FIRST SECRETARY (Inf.)
HIGH COMMISION OF INDIA

16 October 91,

Dear Mr Stett

Even though we are fairly familiar with snake charmers playing before the Cobra it is hardly possible for us to answer the rather technical or musicological questions you have raised. We have read articles that snakes including the Cobras may not be able to directly hear the music which is played but that their under-bellies or sensors near their necks and even their tongues are very sensitive to vibrations from the ground; therefore, in a indirect way they are able to sense the sounds.

On the other hand, many people in India including the snake charmers do believe that snakes, especially the Cobras do actually hear some sounds. This accounts for the fact that occasionally snake charmers are called into houses or areas with gardens which may have snakes including Cobras and are asked to attract these reptiles; this they do sometimes by playing on the instrument; sometimes from experience they know where to search. When the Cobra sways in front of a snake charmer it is also stated that it reacts to the movement of snake charmer's hands and the instrument and not so much to the music; again this is a matter on which specialists could inform you better. I am sure that Australia with its own wealth of snake life has competent herpetologists can give you good information.

2. The instrument played by snake charmers in India is usually called the 'Been', at least in Hindi and most parts of North India. It is difficult to identify what exactly are the notes and the ranges usually played but it would appear that the range is usually within an octave and stretching from middle 'C' or ' B' up to Treble 'C

Yours sincerely,
 



The playing range suggested by the High Commission – Middle C to treble C – would be 247 to 523 hertz.

If snakes are "deaf to high frequencies" – as quoted previously from the 1988 Britannica – in what range do they hear?



Table I
Hearing range of snakes and playing range of various instruments
NOTES and FREQUENCY in HERTZ SNAKE HEARING RANGE  USUAL COMPASS OF SELECTED INSTRUMENTS
    Recorder Flute Bassoon Clarinet Oboe
B   1976    
*
     
A   1760    
*
     
G   1568    
*
 
*
 
F   1397    
*
 
*
*
E   1319    
*
 
*
*
D   1175  
*
*
 
*
*
C   1047  
*
*
 
*
*
B   988  
*
*
 
*
*
A   880  
*
*
 
*
*
G   784  
*
*
 
*
*
F   698
*
*
*
 
*
*
E   659
*
*
*
 
*
*
D   587
*
*
*
 
*
*
C 523
*
*
*
 
*
*
B   494
*
*
*
*
*
*
A   440
*
*
*
*
*
*
G   392
*
*
*
*
*
*
F   349
*
*
*
*
*
*
E   330
*
*
*
*
*
*
D   294
*
*
*
*
*
*
Middle C   262
*
*
*
*
*
*
B   247
*
   
*
*
*
A   220
*
   
*
*
 
G   196
*
   
*
*
 
F   175
*
   
*
*
 
E   165
*
   
*
*
 
D   147
*
   
*
   
C   131
*
   
*
   
B   123
*
   
*
   
A   110
*
   
*
   
G   98
*
   
*
   
F   87      
*
   
E   82      
*
   
D   73      
*
   

 
 

BRITANNICA DISCREPANCY

The 1988 edition of The New Encyclopedia Britannica says:
 
This fact [that there is no external ear], together with a seeming indifference to airborne sounds, has led to the supposition that snakes are deaf or that they can perceive only such vibrations as reach them through the ground on which they crawl.

This supposition is incorrect; snakes are sensitive to some airborne sound waves and are able to receive them through a mechanism that serves as a substitute for the tympanic membrane…

Although the sensitivity of the snake ear varies with the species, it is appreciably sensitive only to tones in the low-frequency range, usuallythose in the region 100 to 700 hertz

(Volume 27, Sensory Reception)
 

 
The frequency-range of hearing in snakes –100 to 700 hertz – therefore covers the range of most music and song!

The entire playing range of the Indian "Been" – about 247 to 523 hertz – is within the frequency range that snakes hear! Even the flute, which plays very high notes, could be heard by snakes for much of its playing range! (Table 1)

The quote from Volume 27 of the Britannica was therefore inconsistent with the quote from Volume 3 where it said, "snakes are deaf to high frequencies."

 
 

LETTERS TO BRITANNICA and REVISION

The Bible, together with the Britannica discrepancy between Volumes 27 and 3, prompted two letters to the Britannica editors.

The first letter, in 1991, brought the discrepancy between Volumes 27 and 3 to their attention:

 

L De Winter
1991 Sept 26
Birkenhead 5015

Public relations
Encyclopaedia Britannica
NSW


Dear Sir/Madam,

I am a subscriber to BRITANNICA and wish to call your attention to the following information.

Volume 3 of THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA (1988) says: "The snake sways in alert response to the charmer's movement, not to the sound of his pipe – snakes are deaf to high frequencies…" (p. 415)

Volume 27, under the heading SENSORY RECEPTION–SNAKES: we learn that snakes hear "through a mechanism that serves as a substitute for the tympanic membrane" and they hear in the frequency range 100 – 700 hertz.

Among woodwind instruments the clarinet, English horn and bassoon are able to cover this range. The oboe, flute and recorder only cover the range partly. The range of the flute is about 250 – 2000 hertz.

It seems clear, therefore, that unless a snake charmer limits himself to very high notes only, the cobra will hear at least some of the music and therefore may be responding to the music.

Perhaps, then, the entry in volume 3 needs to be updated and corrected.

Yours faithfully,
 


The second letter in April 1994 supplied more detail and inquired why the Britannica entry had not been corrected.

The following reply, dated May 25, 1994, was received from the Encyclopedia Britannica Inc Editorial Offices:
 

Dear Mr…

Please excuse our delay in responding to your letter of 18 April regarding an error in the Micropaedia entry "cobra".

Some time ago, the editors were informed of the need to revise the entry, but it had not been possible to do so before now. The editor responsible for the Micropaedia has scheduled the entry "cobra" for revision next year. We appreciate your taking the time to contact us. 

 

The Britannica entry on the cobra was subsequently slightly revised:

1988 version:

The snake sways in alert response to the charmer's movement, not to the sound of his pipe – snakes are deaf to high frequencies…


1997 Britannica CD-ROM version:

The snake sways in response to the movement and perhaps also to the music of the charmer…

 

REFERENCES

Barnett, B. 1967 Snakes. In: Children's Encyclopedia of Knowledge Book of Wildlife, Collins, Britain, p. 184
Belinda 1989 How does snake charming work? The Australian Women's Weekly, November, p. 169
Cansdale, G. S. 1970 Animals of Bible Lands, Paternoster Press, p. 206
Donald, G. Did You Know? The Age, 1992 February 13, p. 2.
Fantastic Facts 1986, World International Publishing, Great Britain, p. 9
Felix, J. 1983 Animals of Asia, Hamlyn Publishing, Czechoslavakia, p. 181
Klauber, L. M. 1982, Rattlesnakes, University of California Press, USA, p. 64
Hastings, J. et al (Eds) 1902, A Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 4, T & C Clarke, Britain
National Geographic  www.nationalgeographic.co.in/charmed_features.shtml
New Illustrated Columbia Encyclopedia 1978, Volume 5, p.1499
Nowinsky, I. Enjoy your Snakes, The Pet Library Ltd, London, p. 8
Parker, H. W. 1977 Snakes A Natural History, 2nd Edition, University of Queensland, Australia, p. 28
Purnell's Encyclopedia of Animal Life 1969, Volume 2, No. 1, pp. 463-464
Students Encyclopedia 1977, Volume 3, p. 35
Tennent, R. M. (editor) 1971, Science Data Book, Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica 1988 Volume 3 p. 415; Volume 27 Sensory Reception pp.158-159
The New York Times 1954, January 10, Section 4, p. 9
The World Book Encyclopedia 1985 Volume 4, p. 592
Young, J. Z. 1962 The Life of Vertebrates, 2nd Edition, Oxford, USA, p. 411.


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