Every living thing uses chemistry for communication.
Cells communicate through their own language of chemical signals. Different compounds, such as hormones and neurotransmitters, act like command instructions, telling a cell about the environment around it and communicating instructions.
Insects and animals communicate with chemicals and pheromones, lightly spiced with templated physical signals, in simpler words, body language.
Ants for example (I like talking about ants!) have a smell language that includes the following common phrases:
- I found food, follow me
- Danger (even what KIND of danger in some ants)
- I am your relative (I belong here, and this is my job)
- I am the queen (and here is an evaluation of my health and whether we need princesses, drones, etc)
- I’ve been squashed! Danger!
- I am dead, haul my body out. (Funny article about spraying a living ant with dead ant smell.)
Ants are territorial and maintain borders. The borders are defined with pheromones. They generally steer clear of other territories, but sometimes ants have to fight other ants over food access, invasion, etc. Imagine an ant hive invaded, it’s WAR! But how do they know it? Ants are pretty dumb and they can’t hear a general announcement. An alarm pheromone “goes viral” and the hive goes into an aggressive posture. And then…
“These colonies conduct ritualized tournaments as a part of the defense of their foraging territories. Opposing colonies summon their worker forces to the tournament area, where hundreds of ants perform highly stereotyped display of fights (italics mine). When one colony is considerably stronger than the other, in other words, able to summon a larger worker force, the tournaments end quickly and the weaker colony is sacked. During the final incursions, the queen is killed or driven off and the larvae, pupae, callow, and honeypot workers are transported to the raider’s nest.
The behavior is mysterious, for ants. Why don’t they simply attack each other? Why is it “highly stereotyped”? The ultimate battle won’t be. They are learning something that affects the outcome. This behavior is symbolic signaling. These are very simple creatures but their scope of communication is roughly parallel to even very complex mammals like wolves. Chemistry is the powerful, swelling music, and body language (stereotyped display) is the lyrics.”
The Ants, Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson (pages 219 & 220)
Scent is fundamental because chemistry is fundamental.
Sense of Smell is fascinating because unlike hearing, touch, or sight, tiny particles of the actual world are literally coming in contact with your brain. Molecules of the chemical in question are directly landing on millions of sensory neurons that lie in a strip of tissue called the olfactory epithelium. The tips of these cells contain proteins called receptors that bind scent molecules. These receptors are like locks and the scent molecules are the keys to open these locks.
When you catch a whiff of rose and then lean in to really smell it you’ve just stuck your nose in front a firehose of scent molecules. It’s strange to picture this, everything always releasing a smoke-like cloud of actual physical particles and us (releasing our own clouds) walking through them, causing eddies and swirls of information. Consider tracking dogs like hounds collecting enough unique molecules to track someone who may have passed by days before. It’s disconcerting to imagine my own scent trailing out behind me and hanging around for perhaps a week. Perhaps this is what my friends have been trying to tell me?
This direct contact with the brain is one reason why scent memories are so powerful. Suddenly BOOM! You smell that unique scent of crispy leaves in the Fall and you remember details you probably could not have retrieved if asked to. If I ask you to remember what the top of a baby’s head smells like or rich soil or a brand new book or red wine vinegar you can do it, can’t you? But it’s odd – you know each one but can only imagine it in a thin, sort of flat, abstract way, like it’s the idea of that scent.
Chemicals are hard information, literal triggers for whatever behavior is needed by a given organism. Chemicals alone can’t code for complex human behaviors because chemicals are hardware and human culture is software. Humans generate a bubble of cultural software all the time as their primary reality. Nearly all human interaction takes place in the abstract shared matrix of this running software. We REQUIRE a separate non-chemical language to run our software and drive behavior. In most animals, scents are behavioral triggers. Of course, we have these too, but they are operational on a level different than language, the level of intimacy. In our core mammalian behaviors, we breathe each other deeply. When we cuddle, kiss and make love, scent seems to weave a little nest around us, making an in here with everyone else out there. Even non-sexual behaviors like cuddling an infant surround us in a gentle cloud of togetherness with scent sealing the bond. Think of how strangely (and uncomfortably) intimate it is to find yourself close enough to share scent with a stranger.
It’s significant that humans have one the weakest senses of smell of all animals. Though it’s a big leap to make, I think it is related to our neocortex, our abstract thinking, our languages, and cultures. Language and culture are prerequisites for ordinary human behavior. Therefore language and culture are innate. All humans exist in communities and all communities weave a culture. When they encounter outsiders, they encounter another culture, a THEM confronting our US. Culture is a package of people, a massive composite selfhood of belonging. Culture is a great self, composed of individual human selves. Culture is the self that feels at home, among one’s own kind, enjoying the only truly right kind of food, music, and traditions on earth. The other is wrong and strange. The other will change and degrade this self that is home and right.
Culture is the Human “pheromone” of self and belonging. It is a literal parallel, abstracted out of all recognition, to the pheromones that inspire peace or war among ants. Our behaviors can’t be generated by a simple chemical scent, our behaviors in groups are triggered by symbols, signals, language, and culture icons. Humans bind meanings to symbols, include those symbols in culture, and identify passionately with that culture. Then if someone attacks that symbol, YOU feel attacked. Actual aggression chemistry has just been triggered in you by an abstract symbol. To be human is to abstract and to share that abstraction with others. It’s a symbolic continuum that is created, shared within your group, then travels from neocortex to neocortex. Human language and symbols are a parallel, an echo, one level up from the rest of the animal world in the way that chemicals convey critical information about how to organize yourself and what to do now.