Unknown artist, Prince Sniffing a Rose, c. 1700 (detail)
From the Walrus:
Our sniffing abilities and their role in establishing and maintaining social structures can be surprising to some, likely because the human sense of smell has long been belittled by scholars: the father of transcendental idealism, Immanuel Kant, thought life would be better if we all just held our noses so that they were shut off from the outside world. “Which organic sense is the most ungrateful and also seems the most dispensable? The sense of smell. It does not pay to cultivate it or refine it . . . for there are more disgusting objects than pleasant ones (especially in crowded places), and even when we come across something fragrant, the pleasure coming from the sense of smell is fleeting and transient.”
Throughout history, many thinkers have argued that vision is a much more civilized way of experiencing the world; using our noses seemed animalistic, vulgar, backward. If humans sniffed one another as dogs do, how could we consider ourselves above them? How could we consider ourselves enlightened?
During the 1800s, Western culture morphed its distaste for olfaction into a belief that the human sense of smell was mediocre and superfluous. To negate the possibility that humans might be uncivilized smellers, we bought in to a convenient fib: that the human sense of smell wasn’t very good. More recently, Rutgers University neurobiologist John McGann penned a fact-check in the prestigious journal Science: “Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth.” McGann blamed a neuroanatomist called Paul Broca, in particular, for this falsehood. Broca had classified humans as “nonsmellers” not as a result of sensory testing but because of his unsubstantiated belief that the human brain had evolved free will at the expense of our olfactory system. Everybody has seen dogs become so entranced by a smell that they bound off in seemingly uncontrolled pursuit of some inordinately desirable odorous objective. Surely we’re better than that?
But these two qualities (olfaction and self-determination) are not mutually exclusive. We don’t need to nix our noses to be in control of the rest of our body. And, in reality, humans have an excellent sense of smell.