(Non)sense of Smell.


One of my three brothers has been producing television newscasts for nearly a decade now, and he will be the first to tell you that “news” — perhaps particularly on television — is as much an entertainment field as game shows or nighttime dramas.  Keeping that in mind, it’s always interesting to me, when I do watch the news, to see what’s included and how it’s framed.  The fact that (as my grandma would put it), it’s “all a big dog show” doesn’t change the fact that it’s perceived, a lot of times, as simple fact.  And when the news covers “science” — which we also mis-construe as bias-free — things get doubly shady, meaning (from my perspective, of course) that they get doubly interesting.

Up until almost two weeks ago, when I crossed state lines to spend some time with my niece, I was actually staying with my grandma, watching several newscasts a day from a local station that I probably wouldn’t bother with normally, but which I have no concrete reason to distrust.  When their science beat teased audiences with a story about results from a “new study,” my interest understandably perked.  I have a professor with a feed on her computer set up to alert her of the nine million (or so) new studies that hit the scientific community each day, so I know the news media has a significant amount of material to choose from, and I was curious which story they had chosen and how they would frame it.  I would have been even more interested if I’d known then what I discovered later that night, with the help of some quick Internet searches:  The “new” study, covered by this local news station last week, was actually released over six months ago, in mid-August.   Get with the times, people.  Sheesh.

The study itself focuses on birth control, and its findings — even diluted for the AP feed — are not uninteresting.  According to (other) research, (heterosexual) women (although no one bothers to specify that, annoyingly) are largely attracted to men whose major histocompatibility complex (say that three times fast, or just go with MHC), best complements their own.  Basically, the belief is that genes are encoded in scent and (het’ro) women are attracted to men whose genes are most different from their own.  From an evolutionary perspective, this makes some sense: when men and women with different genetic backgrounds mate, their offspring have stronger immune systems and fewer genetic health problems.  However, with the hormone shift of taking contraceptives, women’s smell-based preferences reportedly shift as well, landing on people whose genes are more similar.

This would largely just strike me as interesting if not for the various conclusions drawn from it, both in that initial broadcast and in the articles I’ve dug up since:  I’ve seen birth control blamed for divorce rates, break-ups, and infidelity, just to name a few of the winners.  The most interesting claim to me, though, is the idea that birth control interferes with the ability to choose one’s ideal partner.  I’m fascinated by the way that ideal is being defined.  Although a few of the articles bother to use terms like “most genetically compatible” or “best reproductive potential,” the majority stick with popular language, making claims about birth control as an obstacle in finding “Mr. Right” etc.  This completely floors me.  Not only have we reduced “relationships” to exclusive heterosexual relationships, but we’ve reduced those exclusive heterosexual relationships to a forum for reproduction.  In the majority of reflections I’ve read on this study, there’s no mention of relational fulfillment outside of procreation, of a Mister or Misses Right whose capacity for babymaking is not priortized.  (God forbid one whose procreative compatibility is irrelevant.)  There are multiple mentions of increased difficulty with infertility for people with similar MHCs and an increased risk of misscarriages, but no discussion of the childfree population.  Arguably, this is not their focus, but even with their focus elsewhere, isn’t it a tricky decision to shift the definition of relationship so far in one direction, to lose track of emotional/ social/ psychological compatibility in favor of the best reproductive odds?  Bizarrely, this leaves only those populations that don’t really need birth control — homosexuals, asexuals, the infertile, etc — “safe” taking it.  Is this really a claim we need to tout on the nightly Healthbeat?

I mean, I’m a big fan of smell myself.  But we have five other senses, not to mention our often stellar cognitive abilities.  How’s about we use them all?

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2 Responses to “(Non)sense of Smell.”

  1. pretzelboy Says:

    There are quite a lot of scientists that hate science news because they are notorious for sensationalizing things and misrepresenting things. Actual scientific work tends to make fairly small findings in any given study, and these tend to open to a large array of possible interpretations–deciding between these is then claimed to be a subject for future research. TV news doesn’t do well with methodological subtleties, or ambiguous interpretations.

    I have come to especially dislike anything dealing with sexuality and “evolutionary psychology.” “Evolutionary psychology” tends to be little more than raw speculation based on “just so stories.” (I can imagine things evolving for this reason. Therefore, that’s probably what happened.) The link between genes and behavior in humans, to put it mildly, is complex. Moreover, we have fairly limited data on the physical environment humans evolved in.

    Within this context, lots of people love to cook up evolutionary stories about sexuality–and they have this strong tendency to reaffirm how natural late 20th early 21st century North American understanding of (hetro)sexuality are.

    I don’t think I’ve ever bought into these stories–even back when I didn’t believe in evolution, I could see that within an evolutionary framework, these stories should be regarded with suspicion. If the whole point of some article was to explain to me just how natural my heterosexuality was, how was it that I wasn’t particularly heterosexual?

  2. Ily Says:

    Hmm, that’s interesting. I guess by that logic, asexuals would have dull senses of smell. But, to say my sense of smell is hypersensitive would be an understatement. I can smell anything from anywhere, and am not on birth control, so where’s Mr. Right?!

    Anyway, I “love” how these sorts of reports are always so eager to blame everything on women, especially those who are having sex. (Although I’m sure if the media knew that some women weren’t having sex, they’d find something to blame us for as well.) Apparently, hormonal birth control for men is possible, but there’s “no market for it”…I guess not knowing who to blame for all our social ills is just too much. Sigh.

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