Robert Sapolsky, noted neuroscientist, baboon researcher, and commentator on human characteristics, recently wrote an article describing the role of smell in the animal world. The main point was that not much happens for animals, especially emotionally, outside the context of smell. From sex to violence to friendship to bonding with family members, he describes smell almost in a way as the music in the room. Even more than body language, he suggests, two dogs in a confrontation communicate by there phermones, relating which is the confident aggressor and which is covered in the smell of fear. Here is the article
The most interesting point of all this talk about animal noses is what it means for humans. Humans have much, much weaker senses of smell than other primates, even chimps. Sapolsky makes the point that almost half of the genetic variation between humans and chimps involve these smelling genes, with the usual pattern being the gene being on in chimps and off in humans. He then unfotunately trails off into talking about how our other senses make up for smelling, and can “move us to tears.”
But the fact that we smell so poorly means that we aren’t nearly so emotional as other primates. And I think that it’s really this that makes us so different. If we’re wronged, we may not fight back immediately if the situation is threatening, and instead plan our revenge for later. We control our sexual urges, allowing us to form more cooperative and less competitive relationships. Basically we’ve become more like machines as we are less influenced by direct emotional stimulation from our noses. This is a cool piece of the big puzzle of how humans became so different from all other animals.