Monday, June 13, 2022

Humans and the olfactory environment


Perfume burner, Egypt, c. 700-900 (Wikicommons, Musée du Louvre, Marie-Lan Nguyen)


We have sought to remake our environment in ever more appealing ways, including its smell. But the change hasn’t been one-way. By remaking our olfactory environment, we’ve ended up remaking ourselves.



I’ve published a new paper in Psych. When I wrote it, I had three aims:


·         Explain the concept of gene-culture coevolution

·         Provide a concrete example, i.e., how we have coevolved with the odors around us, not only in our ability to emit and sense them but also in our ability to represent them mentally

·         Develop the theoretical basis of gene-culture coevolution


Please feel free to comment. The following is the abstract:



As hunter-gatherers, humans used their sense of smell to identify plants and animals, to find their way within a foraging area, or to distinguish each other by gender, age, kinship, or social dominance. Because women gathered while men hunted, the sexes evolved different sensitivities to plant and animal odors. They also ended up emitting different odors. Male odors served to intimidate rival males or assert dominance. With the rise of farming and sedentism, humans no longer needed their sense of smell to find elusive food sources or to orient themselves within a large area. Odors now came from a narrower range of plants and animals. Meanwhile, body odor was removed through bathing to facilitate interactions in enclosed spaces. This new phenotype became the template for the evolution of a new genotype: less sensitivity to odors of wild plants and animals, lower emissions of male odors, and a more negative response to them. Further change came with the development of fragrances to reodorize the body and the home. This new olfactory environment coevolved with the ability to represent odors in the mind, notably for storage in memory, for vicarious re-experiencing, or for sharing with other people through speech and writing.





Frost, P. (2022). Humans and the olfactory environment: a case of gene-culture coevolution? Psych 4(2): 301-317.  



Anonymous said...

Even today, body odor tolerance seems to be significantly cultural.

For example, in the US it's long been the norm to shower daily and wear deodorant. Failing to wear deodorant and having even slight body odor in public is considered a major social faux pas.

While in Europe body odor seems to be much more tolerated. One of the things that surprised me when I visited Europe 20 years ago in the summer was how body odor in public was normal and tolerated and not noticed by Europeans. I don't know if Americanization in Europe has progressed since then to the point that Europeans are as fussy and fastidious about body odor and deodorant as Americans are, but not long ago there seemed to be a world of difference.

Anonymous said...

of course smell is omnipresent but the fact that touch sight sound etc. are there too should bewilder the mind!

Santocool said...

Off topic

Maybe can be useful to talk about Igbo in Britain.

Bruce said...

In terms of body odor is there a Rushton's rule thing going on? Supposedly a high percentage of east Asians have no body odor (based on pheromones that bacteria act on I believe), while, anecdotally, the African American boys in high school used very strong scented deodorants.

Anonymous said...

whites like Peter Frost support the gay agenda!

Anonymous said...

Bruce you sound like a wetback.

Santocool said...

I witnessed him dancing It's raining man with a rainbow flag!!

Peter Frost said...


Deodorants are relatively recent (since the 1920s), so I wouldn't expect to see any genetic coevolution with their use.


Not really. Those categories are too broad to be useful. An "Asian" is anyone with origins in the Asian continent, i.e., South Asians, East Asians, Middle Easterners. A "Black" is anyone with ancestry in sub-Saharan Africa. A "Mixed" person is usually much more "White" than "Black" in ancestry. And a "White" is anyone with ancestry in Europe or North Africa.

A lot of cognitive evolution has been historically recent. So those broad categories just don't interest me.


I used to support the Gay Rights movement. Now I can't say I do. It's become an almost nihilistic movement to deconstruct gender and sexual orientation. We need sexual norms, especially for young children who may be confused about who they are.

Anonymous said...

Peter you are an overplayed Boomer. Leave Earth!

Santocool said...

So, are you in favor that all kinds of injustices can be comitted(/committed/comintern/fuck) against LGBTs just by what they/we are?

Unknown said...

I'd posit that different ethnicities will have different sensitivities to body odor then, having discovered grain much more recently, therefore being more hunter-gatherer-selected.