Essays and Theories

The Scent of Diversity:
Is the cure for discrimination in all forms as close as your nose?
William A. Spriggs

July 28, 2004

Do you trust nature to do the right thing? Do you believe that if nature had a conscious thought process, that it would win hands down in making the right choices for all humans? If humankind had made all conscious decisions during evolution about its own survival, do you think humankind, because of its aggressive nature and the way it treats the environment, would still be here? Or do you believe that nature, in all of its wisdom, made the right choices in our evolutionary past on our behalf to allow humankind to get this far?

If you picked nature, I believe you made the right choice. I have no doubts that just based on recorded history; we would not have made the right choices. Is this period of free choice that humans are enjoying merely a trial run trying to convince nature that it can go alone? How are we doing on our own? Not very well. Humans have been on the brink of destroying themselves and the environment for close to 50 years with weapons of mass destruction and the wide-spread use of fossil-burning fuels. But, I have some good news for you: nature not only made the right decisions about our biological origins and the environment we live in, nature also is about to give us a bonus before we embark on the next stage of our evolutionary voyage: the solution to the problem of various forms of discriminations, including racism and anti-Semitism. We are rapidly approaching the stage in our evolution where we can not ignore the eventual coming together -- by expanding populations, better health care and nutrition expanding life spans, cheaper modes of travel, but mostly from globalization -- of vast groups of other peoples arriving at our doorstep and wanting a piece of the pie but no longer being able to provide unlimited opportunities for them that there once were. Oh, sure, we've have immigrant migrations before, and our vast country (America) has managed to assimilate them and has become stronger because of them. But when the process to assimilate these groups slows down, as in a prolonged economic downturn, and populations continue to expand, a process of de-evolution toward the ugly and violent that was commonplace with our primal ancestors seems to reemerge.

Despite Nazi Germany's screaming about purity of blood and religious fundamentalists declaring that God created separate races for a reason, etc., nature staunchly believes that we should seek mating partners as genetically diverse for the greatest competitive edge possible in the biological struggle for existence. When biology seeks the greatest competitive edge, it may reach out and gather in items that face resistance from the dominate groups created within their respective cultures. Nature does not see skin color or anything else on the outside that "others" see as a possible danger to them. The big fuss that some people dwell upon such as skin color, hair consistency, eye color, and facial features, are all mental concepts created by cultures that separate populations into categories - and these labels make it easier for controlling those groups through observing the obvious features. Nature gets the "big picture," while humankind still wallows in the infantile conception of safety through exclusion by phenotype. What would happen if you were given the ability to see inside a person's DNA structure and see their "fittest" instead of the items your culture has declared as "weakness?" What would happen if you were given empirical evidence of a person's strength without seeing the color of their skin or the shape of their nose?

Critics of my stance will scream that I am providing them with the fatal flaw to destroy my own argument. After all, they will argue, cultures created by humankind that created the holocaust and discriminatory policies are also part of the survival mechanisms that humans evolved to get us here as well; and science knows that culture has a larger influence on genetics than biology itself. Sexual selection (as opposed the natural selection like that enjoyed by nature) means the freedom to choose, and human history is the mental anthropological record of the free choices that humankind have taken - good or bad. True, I would reply, but if the meaning of life is the solving of problems that enable us pass our genes into the next generation, and the information that was provided to us up till 2004 was only on page 10 of a 200-page book, would we accept the information found on page 150 that strongly suggested we were taking the wrong path by placing too much emphasis on phenotype segregation and that there is a better way?

Another way of looking at discrimination policies is that they just don't exclude others on flimsy evidence, but that dominate groups create these mechanisms to enhance opportunities for their own group members over others. The myth of cultures creating "meritocracies" with images of individuals clawing their way up a ladder of success fits very nicely into the propaganda messages of those already on the top of a local hierarchy. True, there is some competition, but dominates seem to fail to recognize that half the struggle of climbing to the top of this fictional hill was already aided by those that preceded them within their own particular safe circle of similar phenotypes; the competition that they face has been stripped of all those from the subordinate classes. Think of global economics: Do we place barriers in front of people, like countries place barriers for importing items so that their own country has an advantage? How come those individuals that preach free trade of products and commodities between countries don't also promote "free trade" between all groups of peoples? What if the world was dominated by DNA Free Traders?

Perhaps, as an amateur scientist, I am preparing for the day soon (in evolutionary time) when humankind will be united in the concept of a planetary kinship - If humankind can create these barriers, study them and see how they work, they can also deconstruct them once they can see an advantage in "seeing the big picture." Can you believe the evidence for such a promising answer to such a persistent human conflict can be as close as your nose?

Let me quote to from Dr. Robert Winston, Professor of Fertility Studies at Imperial College, University of London, from his book, Human Instinct: How Our Primeval Impulses Shape Our Modern Lives:

"In 1976, a group of researchers in New York began investigating the genetics of mating, and they started by looking at laboratory mice. They concentrated on an important group of genes called the MHC genes, or the major histocompatibility complex. These genes are present in nearly all the cells of mammals and they play a major role in the immune system. The MHC genes produce proteins which spend their whole lives trying to define 'us' (in immunological terms, that is). By being able to recognize us and our cells, they can then recognize foreign bodies or pathogens such as invading microorganisms which could potentially cause disease then send out the signal to mobilize the body's biochemical defences. They are critical in transplantation and are responsible for the rejection of 'foreign' organs…MHC genes vary considerably, which is why so few of us - except, identical twins - have identical tissue types. It is this phenomenon which makes it so difficult to find compatible bone marrow donors for the treatment of such diseases as leukemia, and why we need, almost invariably to suppress the immune system with drugs after a kidney transplant, even at the risk of causing cancer, diabetes or high blood pressure.
If two mice from an average colony mate, some of these genes will be similar while others will not. But remarkably, the US researches found that mice were more likely to mate with partners who had dissimilar MHCs. The experiment was repeated for other mice who were genetically more diverse and had been raised in an outdoor environment, which allowed them much more of a choice of mate. The results were the same. They all seemed to prefer mates with dissimilar MHC genes; opposites really did attract. These mice appeared to have evolved a mechanism to 'sniff out' a certain type of biological mate."
p. 107.

Science does not have all the answers yet, but this "immunological self-awareness" that can detect "foreign" pathogens may also be part of the mechanism that the brain uses to construct the human mental concept of "the other" in terms of a possible danger to one's safety. Another way the brain detects "others" is through the creation of a body schema called peripersonal space. Recent research suggests this schema creates a sort of a personal bubble around the person's self-perception of themselves in the world in which they move. This peripersonal space seems to extend to about arm's length, and people with longer arms have a larger space. But here's the kicker: this space seems to expand when one uses a rake, a joystick in a video game, a horse, or an automobile. The brain begins to expand the space around whatever item it is using to include themselves and becomes active when objects approach the space around the body. That means if you are in a Hummvee SUV or riding on a horse, you include the "tool" you are using to be a part of your personal space and also detects when objects approach. [Maybe this is why some people think they "own the road" while driving and get upset when "others" enchroach on their "territory"].

"Social psychologists have long studied how personal space expands or shirnks depending on personality, culture and circumstances, although they do not know the underlying mechanisms. For example, when a person is threatened or anxious, body space expands in an effort to keep others away . A conversation with someone from a different culture can produce the feeling that his face is uncomfortably close, though it may be the same distance as that of somone from the same culture. Dennis Proffitt, a psychologist at the Univrsity of Virginia, studies how the body schema affects our perception of the environment. For example, just about everyone overestimates the inclines of hills so that a 5-degree hill looks like a 20-degree hill. But people who are encumbered, tired, out of shape or elderly and in declining health may perceive the incline as 25 or 30 degrees." The New York Times, July 13, 2004, "When the Brain Says, 'Don't Get Too Close," by Sandra Blakeslee.

But getting back to our mouse study citied above [the biologist was Lewis Thomas, and the date that I have of the experiments is cited as 1974] it was found that the young mice prefer the smell of their own relatives that had an ever-so-slightly different MHC gene complex. But here is the surprise: when the mice reached puberty, the mice began to prefer the smell of mice whose MHC genes were more unlike their own. To use a bit of levity here, one can almost hear the mother mouse telling the youngsters not to "talk to strangers."

Because of its insatiable desire to learn more, science does not sit still, and the MHC smell experiments then were repeated with a team of zoologists trying to determine how certain fish choose their mates. But since fish don't talk and humans do and share a similar MHC complex, Claus Wedekind, a zoologist at Bern University in Switzerland, in the mid-1990s decided to use humans. Wedekind gathered a group of 49 women and 44 men who were tested to have a wide range of MHC genes. Wedekind decided to have the men wear a T-shirt continuously for two days and nights and were given odor-free soap and aftershave and were asked to remain as "odor-free" as possible. After the allotted time, the T-shirts were placed in a plastic-lined cardboard box with a sniffing hole on top. The women in the experiment were then brought in to smell the T-shirts when they were at mid-point in their menstrual cycles, the time when female smell sensitivity is considered to be the keenest. The women were then instructed to smell the T-shirts and determine which were pleasant or unpleasant. "Overall, says Wedekind, the women he tested were more likely to prefer the scent of men with dissimilar MHC. This is the first indication that the MHC still plays a role in mate choice today." "Scent of a Man," Discover Magazine, February 1996, p. 26.

Wedekind's study also confirmed another aspect of the mice study: that female mice, when pregnant, prefer the familiar odor of MHC-similar males. It seems, biologically, that the female desires to be in the presence of relatives when pregnant in order to receive help in nursing, nurturing, and protection against marauding males. The confirmation of this find was reinforced in Wedekind's experiments when it found that the females who were taking the pill to prevent conception (it raises estrogen levels that fools the female body into thinking that it is pregnant) had a strong preference for the scent of males with similar MHC genes. So, summing up the two studies, we are left with three obvious benefits when choosing mates with dissimilar MHC complex genes:
1. increasing fertility
2. producing hardier offspring
3. reducing the risk of genetic disease [Ilib., p. 28]

But the question raised about women on the pill "fooling" the female body into thinking that it is pregnant is a very important one. Because in our modern industrial societies, smell only plays a fractional part in the modern mating ritual, and as mentioned above, it is culture that is the major contributing factor concerning human behavior. Cultural beliefs of bathing daily or frequently, reducing "BO" ("body odor") with expensive perfumes or aftershaves and attempting to "follow the crowd" with cultural social norms influencing thin body types; all may be causing a run-away sexual selection process that replaces "fit" humans with substitute-fit humans. If modern humankind is surrounded by false MHC body emissions, are humans slowly losing their fertility by producing less than hardy progeny, and increasing the risk of genetic disease? Perhaps.

But, I am not suggesting that we abandon the practice of bathing and letting our natural body odors take us back to the days of our ancestral past where picking one's mate could have been strongly influenced by their scent. Nor do I suggest constructing a global database network of "fit" individuals selected by their MHC genes and outlawing any sexual contact between anyone who does meet the "proper profile." Both suggestions would never happen as being logically impractical, but in particular, the latter suggestion echoes loudly of the Eugenics movement in America during the 1920s and Nazi Germany's in the 1930 and 40s.

But what can be done? Well, perhaps we can get science to produce transmission buttons imbedded with our MHC codes to wear on our person and these badges or buttons would produce varying sounds when our compatible match of the opposite sex approaches and receives then transmits its own presence when one passes. Somehow, the visual images of a street scene, a lá Sex in the City, with all of the humorous and sexual possibilities come strongly to my mine. How about a Bio-Lottery? Anyone who buys a ticket to a lottery that already has our MHC complex code stored in their data base; if we are lucky enough to win, we win a pile of money only if we agree to marry someone from the best possible list of opposite sex candidates. After all, we may be biologically fit, but if we are penniless and ugly to boot by cultural standards, then the compatible mate from an opposite sex listing may not wish to mix his or her genes with the "winner." The idea of a bio-lottery seems fair because the resources accumulated and distributed would not be under the control of any dominate group, thus, by-passing the Social Dominance obstacles which have correctly shown that groups who control resources will do anything to control and distribute resources upward into their hierarchies at the expense of subordinates. Most of the human holocausts in history can be traced back to the desire to obtain, accumulate, and hoard material resources in the form of wealth, and this truly distributes wealth fairly and painlessly.

I have many more ideas about what can be done, but I am saving them for future screenplays. (Hey, you have to keep hope alive somehow) But, before closing, I want to emphasis that despite the fact that we humans dwell in, and are largely influenced by the surrounding cultures that we find ourselves, science reminds us of the great wisdom found in nature. It's on the inside of your body that nature wants the greatest diversity, and it does not care about the outside. The overriding message that nature imparts to us is that perhaps we should take a very close look at the "others" that we call the enemy. We may find a gold mine of opportunity for the future of our species simply by knowing that not all is what we see, but what information we receive via our noses.

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage 1995 - 2007

For all of you who are regular readers of Evolution's Voyage, you may be interested in the essay below that I wrote nine years ago in August, 1995.. Here is the link to that essay, and the inserted paragraph is from the sixth paragraph. It was speculation then, but now is a"studied speculation."

Evolutionary Psychology and the Origins of Bigotry and Prejudice: Perhaps, Evolutionary Psychology Unravels the Mystery
I speculate that prejudice and bigotry began in the immune system. God designed this system to determine chemical friend or foe on a cellular basis. This internal, molecular, chemical identification method then developed into an external comparison mechanism. The first external identification most likely verified kin, and, thus, gene comparability. Once the patterns of kin recognition were established, slight variations of these same mechanisms were then used as the basis of establishing friend or foe. From these patterns followed the development of conscious conceptualization. (For an excellent study on kin recognition, see the article "Kin Recognition," by David W. Pfenning and Paul W. Sherman, Scientific American, June, 1995.)


Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995 - 2011