There are no plausible theories as to why we experience pleasant smells and why things smell pleasant to us. There is no biological or evolutionary value in being able to smell pleasant odours or get pleasure from such odours. You may think that food smells "nice" and therefore pleasant smell is about food foraging. Well, yes it does smell nice when you're hungry, but it can also make you nauseous when you're full. In any case I'm talking about really beautiful smells - those of certain flowers for example or a wonderful perfume and not the smell of frying bacon.
Not all flowers smell "nice" to us. Remember, flowers smell to attract pollinators (insects) and we, humans, are not pollinators!
Muller, in 1942, carried out a survey of the frequency that different fragrances occur in nature. Of 1266 species, 138 had unpleasant, cabbage-like odours.
A particular example of unpleasant smelling flowers are the so-called "Carrion Flowers".
- Below are some examples of the Carrion flowers
- The carrion flowers give off the smell of rotting meat
- They attract insects (e.g. flies and beetles) which then act as pollinators
- Some carrion flowers temporarily trap the insects to ensure they collect some pollen
Rafflesia Amorphophallus titanum (Titan arum) Stapelia
click on image to enlarge
Why do we like perfumes?
Why do we use perfumes (well some of us anyway!)?
Not all perfumes smell nice to all people. It is a very personal thing. Milinski and Wedekind have done some very interesting and far reaching research into our perfume choices1. They found that people chose perfume on the basis of their immunotype. People expressing the same or similar HLA alleles chose the same basic perfume ingredients. Their conclusion was startling. People use perfume to advertise their immunotype - unconsciously.
- Milinski, M. and C. Wedekind (2001). "Evidence for MHC-correlated perfume preferences in humans." Behavioral Ecology 12(2): 140-149.
History of perfume
Resins and oils were probably the first "perfumes" since they can be stored and, more importantly, traded. Since it is only possible to find the main perfume ingredients in certain parts of the world, travel and trade was the only way to obtain perfume. Extracting fragrance from flowers and plants probably came later since it relies upon a more advanced technology.
[More to come..]
Perfume in ritual
Watch this space