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From Barnes & NobleA Review by the Barnes & Noble.com Science & Nature Editor
This book certainly conveys author Lyall Watson's fascination with the sense of smell and the intriguing possibility of human behavior being influenced by the mysterious Jacobson's organ. If you have ever seen a cat inhale deeply with its mouth open, you have seen Jacobson's organ in action. In humans, the organ, also known as the vomeronasal organ, is a pair of tiny pits, one on either side of the nasal septum, a centimeter and a half above the nostrils. These openings are receptors for the larger molecules like pheromones. For many years, it was believed that humans did not possess this organ, but recent research has discovered it in the majority of people tested for it. We are not consciously aware of information coming in from this organ, but it may play an important role in sexual attraction, as well as the instant likes and dislikes we sometimes feel when meeting a stranger. Watson points out that the Jacobson's organ is sometimes removed during cosmetic or reconstructive surgery to the nose, with unknown results, and calls for more caution until the function of Jacobson's organ is more fully understood in humans.
The book, which is decorated with botanical woodcuts throughout, is organized in chapters based on Carolus Linnaeus's organization of smells: Fragrantes (fragrant), Hircinus (goaty), Ambrosiacos (ambrosial), Tetros (foul), Nauseosos (nauseating), Aromaticos (aromatic), and Alliaceos (garlicky). Watson gives an evolutionary history of the sense of smell, starting with the Devonian period when taste and smell could barely be differentiated. (Both are chemical senses.) With hagfish, there developed an opening above the mouth leading to a paired chamber where the scents could be analyzed, the first nose. Later, taste and smell separated enough so that smell became the long-distance complement to taste, a distinct advantage to land dwellers. Snakes happen to possess both noses and Jacobson's organs. They snake flick their tongues to gather in molecules for the latter. And while fish and snakes simply respond to smells, mammals make them in abundance. We are all familiar with male cats and dogs "spraying" to mark territory. Humans may not spray, but we are designed to send out many smelly messages about the state of our reproductive condition, as well as messages about our emotions and other information. Underarm and pubic hair is designed to speed these messages along, and scents are being continually released from head hair and skin. The scene in It's a Wonderful Life where Jimmy Stewart smells Donna Reed's hair, leading to a violent fit of passion, is all confirmed by research. Then why are humans so dead set against smelling each other when the other mammals relish it? Watson doesn't have an easy answer, but the smells of strangers do set off alarms, while the familiar smells of family comfort. It's a truism that peoples of different races and cultures seem to smell more strongly to outsiders. The ultimate xenophobic insult is "you stink." Maybe our cosmopolitan society with its mixtures of people from different backgrounds and eating habits have made the removal of personal smells more important. If a personal smell is too familiar, though, it dampens sexual desire and may be a mechanism to prevent incest. The Kabbutz Effect shows that children raised together from birth do not find each other sexually interesting when they grow up. They smell like family to each other.
-- Laura Wood, Science & Nature Editor