Must we stop and smell the flowers?

Apart from passive receptivity, I have had no more opportunity to experience perfumes than any other nose in the average crowd. And even in that chaos, the scents seem to be equally admixed with whatever else clings to us -not all of it encouraging. But I have to believe that the ability to notice different smells, let alone be repulsed or attracted to them, must serve more purpose than merely warning us off things that might be harmful. Why dedicate an entire organ just to avoid rotting carcasses or to pick pleasing flowers -as socially useful as that might be?

Indeed there may be an entire chemical vocabulary entrusted to smells, that enriches the umwelt of the otherwise utilitarian world of the animal kingdom. Given our common origins, why would we be any different?

Of course, except for their behaviour, animals are unable to communicate what they are reading in the odour, and until the very recent identification of olfactory receptor genes, even variations in humans were, by and large, a mystery. And yet, their importance is signalled by the finding that these genes appear to constitute the largest gene family in all the mammalian genomes.

The problem, perhaps, has always been in the attribution. As with animals, if we don’t know that odours are responsible for an action, we wouldn’t think to credit them. If a dog, for example, marks a spot after smelling it, we have no idea what that means. Does it merely suggest that the dog simply likes whatever it was it smelled, or something more? Is the dog leaving a message other than ‘I was here, too’?

You see the difficulty: an odour may engender an action, but neither the signal nor the response can be reliably categorized as anything other than a generic stimulus/response. And given the size of the olfactory receptor gene family, a purposeless, or motiveless reflexive response seems unlikely.

So, how have we made use of this prowess historically? Well, for one thing, we have used odours, to mask odours -a rather recursive, circular activity, it seems. The fact that bathing, at one time was frowned upon -or perhaps difficult to achieve with any regularity for other than the wealthy- usually demanded olfactory disguise amongst those not similarly handicapped. The need to remedy the resultant smell, in itself suggests a nascent awareness of a message, camouflaged as it might be in societal norms.

And, think of the now discredited Miasma theory: that many diseases -the Bubonic Plague springs to mind- were caused by ‘bad air’: smells, in other words. One can certainly understand the conflation of the odour of, say, rotting meat and sickness that might follow ignoring the message inherent in its telltale reek, with the idea that the smell itself might be the cause. Only when germs were identified, and -in the absence of germs- not the air around them, did the idea of smell become merely an indicator, not a cause of disease.

But there’s a hint of a more useful and atavistic function of odours in the discovery of its importance in the initial bonding and identification of human mothers with their newly born offspring. I suppose it should have been obvious for millennia, though: an orphan lamb is often rejected by an unrelated lactating mother unless the strange lamb is made to smell like her.

So, where am I going with this? Well, first of all, the findings of a recent study [lead author Casey Trimmer, PhD] published online in advance of print in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences:

‘Humans have about 400 different types of specialized sensor proteins, known as olfactory receptors, in their noses. One odor molecule can activate several different olfactory receptors, while any given receptor can be activated by several different odor molecules. In a process that remains to be decrypted, the olfactory system somehow interprets these receptor activation patterns to recognize the presence, quality (does it smell like cherry or smoke?) and intensity of millions, maybe even trillions, of different smells… Small differences in olfactory receptor genes, which are extremely common in humans, can affect the way each receptor functions. These genetic differences mean that when two people smell the same molecule, one person may detect a floral odor while another smells nothing at all… Because most odors activate several receptors, many scientists thought that losing one receptor wouldn’t make a difference in how we perceive that odor. Instead, our work shows that is not the case…  A change in a single receptor was often sufficient to affect a person’s odor perception… olfactory receptors in the nose encode information about the properties of odors even before that information reaches the brain.’

Why the receptor complexity if odours are mainly simple social adjuncts? Or, is there more going on than meets the nose? Obviously we seem to have less appreciation of the panoply of chemicals around us than, say, the average dog, but because we do not ‘smell’ them with equal facility, does that mean they have less of an effect on us? As we have begun to appreciate in terms of mother/infant recognition, not all odours reach conscious awareness. Not all smells are nameable.

Some perfume manufacturers maintain that their products contain pheromones (chemical signals) which might activate aphrodisiac-like behaviour in humans, but so far the evidence is tenuous, to say the least. Given our common evolutionary history with animals who do produce and react to pheromones, and our own incredible biological investment in olfactory receptors, however, I suspect it is just a matter of time before similar chemicals and effects are identified and utilized in us.

What brought this whole subject to mind, though, was a titillating article in the Smithsonian Magazine about Cleopatra’s perfume:

‘Back in 2012, the archaeologists uncovered what was believed to be the home of a perfume merchant, which included an area for manufacturing some sort of liquid as well as amphora and glass bottles with residue in them… The researchers took their findings to two experts on Egyptian perfume, Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, who helped to recreate the scents following formulas found in ancient Greek texts.’

And, no, there’s no proof that what was recreated was what Cleopatra used -in fact, ‘It’s believed she had her own perfume factory and created signature scents instead of wearing what would be the relative equivalent of putting on a store-bought brand.’ But still, it’s a smell that Cleopatra might have worn…

There’s a legend that she believed so fervently in her perfume’s allure that she soaked the sails of her royal ship in it – so much, in fact, that Marc Antony could smell her coming all the way from shore when she visited him at Tarsus.

There’s got to be something in that: where there’s smoke there’s fire, eh?

Scrambled Eggs

Great! Test tube mothers now, is it? Not enough to eliminate the Fallopian tube, or the on-egg dating site where potential sperm candidates meet, are scrutinized, profiles scanned and competition held for first across the zona (pellucida, that is) … Oh no, now we have to eliminate the entire coffee shop. What is happening out there… or do I mean in there? It’s so confusing.

There was a time when it was simple. Well, maybe it wasn’t, but at least we were used to it. You met somebody and expectations and hormones took over. No need to put in a special request for stem cells, or people in white lab coats and masks. No need to take out a loan –although flowers and dinners aren’t that cheap anymore, either. But it was the excitement of the chase, the hunt –searching for clues about the other person that weren’t all tied to their DNA; picking them because they were funny and considerate, cute and snuggly. They had histories. Stories. Isn’t that why we get together? Wasn’t it?

Okay, I’m leap-frogging here. We’re not there yet –I mean they are not there yet; I suspect that, despite the occasional slip-up, most of us are still going to prefer to stick to the traditional court-and-impregnate model that has served us so far. I mean, fun is fun, eh? And to be fair, there’s a lot to deal with if you want to bypass natural stuff -ingredients, for example. Right now, you need a minimum of two things to make babies: a sperm and a receptive egg (sperm always seem to be in the mood…). Yes, and you need a place for them to meet and grow together, but there are any number of uteri out of work at any given time, so, with the rise of things like Airbnb, I suspect they won’t be a problem.

And everything that is alive has DNA and its instruction manuals closeted away somewhere… Do you see the opportunities I’m suggesting? Trick some skin cell, or whatever, into thinking it’s a sperm or an egg, and poof –reproduction-lite. Better still, why not hoodwink that ordinary cell into thinking it’s pregnant? I mean, it’s got all the necessary assembly instructions squirrelled away, hasn’t it? Your argument just has to be convincing. Persuasive. It doesn’t necessarily need to be, well, necessary. You could just be doing it for fun. A prank. Or to prove that you can, I guess. Isn’t that why a lot of stuff gets done? When you tire of trying to justify something that would fly in the face of current needs and desires, you simply create a niche product. Create a want. Wants usually evolve into needs –mutate into needs, at any rate. Look at Selfies and their requirement for sticks. Or bell-bottomed trousers –no, wait, that was a while ago…

My point, I think, is that gender may be rendered redundant not by increasing social awareness of its variations, but rather because of its dispensability. Why keep something you don’t really need? History will decide, of course, but hindsight tends to come down hard on things that outlive their time. Consider phlogiston. It was the postulated fire element that was contained by combustible things and was released when they caught fire. Of course! But who, apart from old people, have even heard of it? Or want to?

And then, in keeping with the air theme, there is the Miasma Theory which just assumed that disease was caused by ‘bad air’. Simple. Elegant. No need to bring in a lot of accessory stuff like animalcules and other things you couldn’t see anyway. Germs, let alone viruses prions and the like, were simply unnecessary and unduly complicated. Why dump many unknowns into an equation that could be solved by one charming known? Why mess with E = mc 2 when it isn’t a theory of everything, especially if it needs Quantum? Explanation isn’t everything, either…

Okay, so I’ve non sequitured again, but hopefully you see my concern. Obsolescence is one thing –we often persist past our best-before dates- but unplanned obsolescence is another creature entirely. It smacks of blundering about in dark corners hoping there are no unpleasant surprises -nothing that will sting in retrospect.

I am as excited as the next person about the prospects for the future, but experience teaches caution. The principle of unintended consequences is a favourite historical topic –almost as seductive as the ‘what if’s’ so popularized in historical fiction nowadays. Maybe there is nothing enchanted about that first introduction between egg and sperm. Nothing magical. Nothing necessary. Maybe life will carry on much as before and procreation will still scratch out a living between the sheets. And maybe it’s always good to have options -choices freely made and understood. Even needed, occasionally. We have always been condemned to live in interesting times –the Past was never an Eden.

And yet…



Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul.  This may be how we choose to think about ourselves as we screw our courage to the sticking place. And yet, much as we hate to admit it, there is something a little frightening about things that surround us which we cannot see. Clouds that, had we not been made aware of them, would have drifted as unseen and unregarded as smoke on a moonless night.

Bacteria, at least in popular culture, have usually been associated with filth, contamination, and especially, illness. The Germ Theory, which postulates that some diseases are caused by agents (microorganisms), was first proposed in the mid-1500s and later substantiated with the advent of microscopes and public sanitation advances. The recognition of microorganisms as causes of disease supplanted the previously held disease theory of Miasma –bad air- as propounded by Galen, a Greek physician and philosopher in the mid second century CE Roman empire.

As counter intuitive as it might sound nowadays, new discoveries have lately suggested that he may well have been on to something: I suppose this shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, though. As the news article observes: ‘Studies have already shown that our microbiome – the collection of bacteria, viruses and fungi that live on our skin and in our bodies – outnumbers our own cells 10 to one. These can be spread through direct contact, airborne emissions and shed skin cells in dust.’ Or, perhaps more disturbing, ‘Walk through someone else’s cloud, and it will “rain” bacteria on your skin and be breathed into your lungs.’ The study, from scientists at the University of Oregon, was published in the Sept. 2015 edition of Peer J: -a fascinating read, to be sure.

I suppose I found this article a timely reminder that we all approach the idea of ‘cleanliness’ in different ways, and to different degrees. Not everybody who pays attention to it has OCD.

Lisa was a good example, I think. A beautifully coiffed, tall woman in an almost obsessively ironed white, frilly blouse and perfectly pleated black skirt, she sat primly, but in isolation in the fully packed waiting room. Trying not to seem rude, she had managed to negotiate the chaos of hyperactive children and their large-tummied mothers, by contracting herself into the smallest possible dimensions in a corner. She wasn’t obvious about it, nor did she seem at all uncomfortable –just careful to avoid undue and unnecessary contact. As if everyone around her had the flu –or something else of which they might not even be aware. Yet.

As I led her down the corridor to my office I noticed she stopped at the front desk for a quick dab of alcohol hand rub from the dispenser the secretaries had placed there, probably for their own protection. Good, I thought, she’s getting her hands ready so she won’t contaminate me when we shake. Then it occurred to me in kind of uncomfortable shiver, that we had already shaken hands. So, to make her feel that it was indeed an appropriate thing to do after touching, I helped myself to a dollop from the same container. I don’t think she noticed; she was too engaged in straightening the sleeves of her blouse and then making sure no hair was out of place to ruin the effect. I put it down to nervousness.

Once she had settled into the chair across from my desk and examined my office with what seemed like polite curiosity, I asked her why she had been sent to see me in consultation. Her expression immediately changed. Her initially benign and neutral face suddenly wrinkled suspiciously, and her eyes wandered over my face for a moment searching for a safe place to stand. Or were they looking for reasons –any excuse- to terminate the visit and seek help elsewhere?

I thought I’d make it easier for her. “Well, your family doctor seems to feel you have… issues in the vaginal area that he can’t resolve. Would you like to tell me about them..?”

Her face gradually hardened. “I told him I wanted to see a female gynaecologist! But he never listens. He’s too busy to listen, I think.” She stared at a painting on the wall beside her, for a moment. “And your waiting room looks even fuller than his, I have to say.” Her eyes migrated slowly around the room stopping to feed on the eclectic tidbits I had scattered almost randomly throughout: the wooden statue of an Ethiopian woman holding a child and seeming to hide behind a plant on my desk; the terracotta woman sitting on a flimsy oak table holding a begging bowel filled with shiny coins that require constant vigilance from every mother who visits with her children; the jade apple on my desk; the multicoloured painting of a peasant woman leading a horse…

Interestingly, it was to the painting that her eyes continually returned. “But he never had pictures on his wall. Nothing at all interesting about his office except a window with a tree right outside it…” She lowered her eyes for a moment and then they flew back to my face and settled there. “So, what did you want me to tell you?”

“Dr. Grossac seemed concerned about your vaginal issues, as he put it.” I couldn’t suppress a smile at his turn of phrase and she noticed it.

“He just got fed up with not finding anything. He seemed to be a one-trick-pony: if his swabs and cultures didn’t show anything abnormal, then of course nothing was abnormal. A standoff.

“There is an odour, however –but like describing the taste of wine, words sometimes fail to capture it -or validate it… I don’t expect most family doctors will have a gas chromatograph in their offices, but I do think most noses are able to detect differences, don’t you? I mean, isn’t that what they’re for?”

She had a point.

She hesitated a moment, and then continued with a guilty expression. “I don’t mean to imply that Dr. Grossac doesn’t know his medicine -he told me he could smell something, but he didn’t know what. I guess he thought you would…”

“What have you tried so far?”

“I’ve tried scented oils in the bathwater; I’ve tried different laundry soaps, different personal products, but they only seem to help for an hour or two…”

“How long has this been going on, Lisa?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know –maybe a couple of weeks now.”

“And has this ever happened to you before?”

She shook her head, thought better of it, and then looked at me with caged eyes. “I suppose maybe something similar when I was a teenager…” She stopped, no doubt hoping I wouldn’t demand a fuller description. Sometimes you’re just not supposed to ask.

I smiled expectantly. “Oh, and what did your doctor find then?”

She blushed and looked at the horse painting once again. “Actually, I found it…”

I pretended to look at something on my desk. “And what did you find?” Sometimes I’m merciless.

She looked down at her lap, embarrassed beyond words. “I… I left something inside.” Her head snapped back upright and she unleashed her eyes on my face, daring me to pursue it. “I mean I was really young –just starting my periods, really…” Her voice trailed off in distress. This was a woman’s issue after all; she didn’t really expect me to understand.

“And this time?”

“Nope,” she mumbled to her knees. “Couldn’t find anything…”

“And your doctor?

“He never really looked in there…”

I tried not to show surprise. “Do you mind if I look?”

She shook her head –with relief, I think.

After I’d examined her and dealt with the issue, she came back into the office with an awkward smile on her face. “So,” she said, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire, eh?”

I had to smile again. “Ever heard of the Miasma Theory?”

She returned my smile. “Galen?”

I nodded. “He wasn’t entirely wrong was he?”