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March 2nd, 2010

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01:42 am - Pheromones and mechanistic behavior
Here's a nifty article on human pheromones (or more accurately, how they don't exist in humans, or in mammals). One bit that makes perfect sense to me is:
Not surprisingly, scientists do not agree on what defines a pheromone, and attempts by chemists to identify such putative agents have failed. Among the many reasons for this failure is that the basic tenet of the concept - that one or a few hormone-like chemicals, specific to each species, are triggers of social behaviour - is wrong. In mammals, chemically mediated behaviours are rarely hard-wired, and most biochemicals involved in communication between members of the same species are not specific to that species and comprise many compounds, some of them affected by diet, stress and other factors.

The two main classes of pheromones said to exist in mammals are "releaser" (biochemicals that elicit particular behavioural responses in others) and "primer" (biochemicals that alter endocrine function in others). In fact, nearly all phenomena attributed to releasers in mammals turn out to depend on learning, context, or novelty. Take mating preferences. When mice of strain A are fostered as babies with mice of strain B, they tend to prefer to mate with B mice rather than with A mice, their own genetic strain. Pheromones need not be invoked to account for this behaviour as it can be explained by the smell of the foster nest: the fostered mice mate mainly with mice that smell the same. The learning of smells can occur before birth, with adult offspring of a number of species, including humans, showing a stronger preference for foods and smells to which their pregnant mothers were exposed.

As for primer pheromones, in mammals most phenomena attributed to them turn out to reflect physiological and psychological responses to abnormal changes in the social and physical environment, such as stress. And when it comes to hormones and the endocrine system, those influences come from many sources.
What I've seen in discussions of pheromones is what I've seen in most evo psych, a desire for some way to reduce much of human behavior into simple mechanistic formulas. This is to some degree possible with hive insects, both because arthropods are very different from vertebrates, and because hive insects are exceptionally specialized creatures. In any case, I find the fact that the various theories surrounding humane pheromones are based on this desire for simple mechanistic explanations to say well more about the psychology of the people who promote them than they do about the mechanisms of human behavior.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC)
Well, they tried marketing fragrances for haploid hive workers, but it turns out insects don't have much spending money. On the other hand, as primitive as our understanding of human behavior is at present, certain practical applications have been discovered...
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC)
I think the general public gets confused by the difference between sensative to smell -- and humans are -- and the particular chemical communication (mostly in insects) that is what is usually called pheremones.

Dogs and other animals smell each other when they're in heat, humans respond to varoius smells for very good reasons and they influence behavior. They aren't hard wired in, in the same way as insects might be.
[User Picture]
Date:March 3rd, 2010 06:08 am (UTC)
Well, there is probably a difference between a neutral but attractive scent, like lavender or vanilla, versus something we are keyed to, like smellable immune markers, body sweat, etc.
[User Picture]
Date:March 3rd, 2010 02:21 pm (UTC)
Specialization, as they say, is for insects.

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