Monday, March 5, 2012

The Scented Ape: The Biology and Culture of Human Odour, D. Michael Stoddart (1991)

Reviewer: Ignacio van Kugel

Rating:  4 musky, onion scented pierogies

Review:  “Take your stinking paws off of me you damn dirty ape!” –Astronaut Taylor.

How often do you consider your nose, the way things smell, or how smells affect you?  There can be little doubt, that of all our senses, olfactory receives the least conscious thought on any given day.  In fact, humans have a distain of their own human smell, as we all are aware of the great amount of daily effort to remove all trace of human scent.  Language reflects a human preference to sight over smell with the phrase “I see” to mean I understand, whereas, “something smells” to mean that something is wrong.  D. Michael Stoddart attempts to explore this lack of conscious thought of the nose, why humans have a complex relationship with how we feel about how things smell, and our own human scent.  Stoddart takes a multidisciplinary approach in his book in attempting to analyze the role olfactory plays in human biology, culture, psychology, and evolutionary history. 

Stoddard begins with a fairly technical explanation of how the olfactory bulb is connected to the brain of various creatures, including humans.  It is well known that other animals use scent, and sexual attractants to aid in reproduction.  In fact, olfactory is often critical to reproduction, and in some species sexual development and maturation.  Experiments on mice that have their olfactory bulb removed results in the mice having no interest in sex, and other hormonal effects.  Whether such sexual and behavioral disruption is effected in humans is unknown (as it would unethical to remove the olfactory bulb in a person), however, it is suspected that such an effect may occur.  Indeed, the olfactory bulb, which is in the highest passage of the nose, shares a special connection with both the pituitary gland as well as deepest parts of the brain that control emotion.  It would seem the unique feelings that can arise from a scent are the result of this nose-emotional brain connection.  Our eyes and ears lack this direct connection to the emotional brain as the sensory information from the eyes and ears are filtered through the neocortex (conscious brain) before any emotion can be triggered. 

Beyond our olfactory sense being different from our eyes and ears the question is raised, for what purposes does our nose continue to play in human life?  The human body, more than any other primate, contains more scent glands, focused in greatest number in the pubic region, axillary (armpit) region, and face.  That we develop pubic and axillary hair at puberty and that hair excels at increasing the surface area for scents to be release, it would seem that “goat under the armpit” or “flower of youth” scent is directly tied, at least, to sexual maturity and notification of sexual maturity. 

So then, why do we have such disgust with our own odor, and where did the custom of scenting ourselves with perfumes come about.  One interesting aspect of human females is that ovulation is concealed and kept secret from males, whereas in other primates, it is not.  Also, humans, although subject to debate, form monogamous (or at least serial monogamous) relationships in a “gregarious” group.  One theory for this type of relationship to work in a group is that ovulation must be kept secret from males.  Thus, courting behavior will result and force the male to invest time with the female thereby increasing the likelihood that the male will stay with the female throughout the duration of the pregnancy and the resulting 10-15+ years until the offspring reaches adulthood.  One theory of the use of perfume, is that the sexual attractants of plants and animals that do mimic human body odor, was applied to scramble any fertility signals given away by human odor.  

It is clear from the book, that Stoddard is only scratching the surface of the role of scent and human odor.  Although we may think that the nose is a primitive organ and merely a vestigial sense, it is clear that the olfactory sense and our numerous scent glands endured to play a role in the behavior and development of modern humans.  Although, much of the book focuses on the likely sexual connection between humans and scent, it is interesting that the nose is also a direct gateway to emotional parts of the brain.  This likely accounts for the unique feeling that comes about when a scent triggers a memory.  

One final theory worth mentioning is that although human scent may no longer advertise sexual readiness (ovulation), human scent may rather be a way to promote pair bonding, and monogamy through strong emotional attachment.  Could this then account for the ever increasing divorce rates in the last 100 years in Western cultures, where we cleanse, deodorize, engage in depilatory activities; that our ever increasing lack of scent makes it ever easier to break the pair bond?  So ladies and gentlemen, perhaps the best way to keep your significant other is to throw out the soap, deodorant and razors.

1 comment:

  1. I've gone years without deodorant and perfumes, and men LOVE my natural scent.