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Sex and smell -- Adam's nose

Human evolution was driven by our ancestors' inability to detect human sex pheromones

World Scientific

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IMAGE: This is the cover for Adam's Nose, And the Making of Humankind. view more

Credit: World Scientific, 2015

Why are humans able to live in dense aggregations, yet retain a monogamous lifestyle?

"Adam's Nose, And the Making of Humankind" provides the answer as a genetic hobbling of part of the sense of smell that rendered human pheromones undetectable. Published by Imperial College Press, this hot-off-the-press book says that without our ancestors' pheromone detectors being disabled, the pair-bond that underpinned the security of the one-male one-female family structure would not have withstood the sexual pressures of communal living. Social gregariousness allowed our ancestors to hunt collaboratively and reap the nutritional benefits of a meaty diet, setting human evolution on the path that leads to us today. Olfactory disablement enabled our ancestors to apply sex smells of animals and plants to their bodies, stimulating ancient neural brain circuits that have driven sex since the beginning of life, but without releasing sexual behaviour.

Sex and smell have been evolutionary travelling companions throughout evolutionary history. The control of sex and the perception of smell both lie in the most ancient parts of the brain. The genetic mutation affecting the pheromone perception equipment left our ancestors to survey the scented world with only their noses - sensory instruments with connections to the rational as well as the emotional brain.

Human bodies produce information about their genetic quality encoded in the secretions of their scent organs, particularly those in the armpits. We have an enigmatic relationship with our sense of smell; we do not want to smell of humans but we go to inordinate lengths to smell of other animals. 'Adam's Nose' analyses the relationship between sex and smell, and resolves why we have such an enigmatic relationship with our sense of smell.

Some of the most evocative literature and poetry places the smell of a loved one above all else, and countless beautiful paintings show that painters can introduce olfactory interest into canvas and pigment. 'Adam's Nose' shows how modern advertisers use similar tricks to alert our sense of smell to something far beyond the product being advertised, and explains how our mutated sense of smell is responsible for a flourishing perfume culture, and why we respond to aesthetic smell imagery with such emotional force.

The thesis developed in 'Adam's Nose' is that modern human society owes much to a sense that many write would off as being irrelevant.

"Nothing is further from the truth", says the book's author, Professor Michael Stoddart. "Modern humans may not use their sense of smell for information about the mundane things that fill their daily lives, as do dogs and mice, but just a few molecules of scent swept along on an incoming tide of air can trigger neural pathways in the brain that once caused our ancestors to feed, fight, flee, or copulate. They take us to new levels of human fulfillment."

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The book retails for US$58 / £38 (hardcover) and US$28 / £18 (pbk) at major bookstores. More information on the book can be found at http://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/p957.

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