June 3, 2013

Impaired sense of smell by race / ethnicity?

I've been trying to find out how racial groups differ in their sense of smell. Anosmia is lack of smell, hyposmia an underdeveloped sense. Nothing leaps out at me from googling around, or looking through books on olfaction.

There are cross-cultural Smell Identification Tests, but they seem to give conflicting stories about which groups have a better overall sense of smell, i.e. if you tested every odor possible, and not only those that one group has lots of experience with and other groups little.

But, I haven't devoted research-project time to sifting through everything here. Anyone who wants to find out and broadcast something exciting and new in the world of human biodiversity should look into it and write it up.

I have this vague hunch that modernizing is causing us to lose our sense of smell, as part of the broader pattern toward becoming more cerebral and less corporeal. I also get the impression that pastoralists are more likely to wear cologne and perfume, suggesting they have a more developed sense of smell than folks in agrarian societies. Then again they may have the same olfactory sensitivity, but just more of a flair for living.

Any anecdotes you guys have, or patterns that are well known but little talked about?


  1. I dunno, but a personality site I once visited - "Personotypes" - claimed that sense of smell is directly related to the size of the nasal bone. A large nasal bone produces a prominent, "Jewish-looking" nose, for lack of a better description.

    The website's map claimed that prominent nasal bones were common in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and East Africa. All other areas were shown as having rare occurence of prominent nasal bones.

    Oh yeah, and they also said liberals were more likely to have large nasal bones - and, therefore, a better sense of smell - than conservatives. though this this correlation isn't absolute, since they used some liberal actors as examples of having big nasal bones.


  2. Now, what the heck does a "large nasal bone" look like? I dunno, but the website gave examples of celebrities.

    Tom Cruise was said to have a large nasal bone, so I guess a better sense of smell. George Clooney was said to have a small nasal bone. I'm bad at remembering facial details, but maybe you can tell the difference between Cruise and Clooney's noses.


  3. So Mideasterners, Mediterrean people, Balkan peoples, and those living in East Africa - or the descendants of those people - would tend to have a better sense of smell. Come to think of it, Iranians and Northwestern Indians(Asia) were shown as commonly having large nasal bones.

    All other races, including Northern Europeans(Scandinavia, British Isles) and central Europeans(Germany, Frace, etc.), Eastern Europeans, West and Southern Africans, and all East Asians, and most Asian Indians, would have poor sense of smell.

    It seems like those with bigger nasal bones and a superior sense of smell correlate with areas where pastoralism, and not farming, was practiced. I'm not sure how you could work in Celtic areas, however.


  4. Searching your blog, I came across this exchange:

    ""Some of the Chinese are descended from pastoralists."

    Right, there's some up north around Manchuria. Aside from the features you mentioned, they also have more hawk-like noses rather than ones with a low nasal bridge and a wide base."

    So a "hawk-like" nose must be correlated with a superior sense of smell; a nose with a low nasal bridge, on the other hand, is correlated with an inferior sense.

    You may have hit on something really important here. Superior sense of smell may be one of the defining feature of pastoralist peoples(and descendants), and what causes all their cultural idiosyncrasies.

    for instance, maybe the reason that East Asians have no disgust reflex is that they have a poor sense of smell. Going to bathroom in a supermarket will bother people less if they can't smell it(I'd expect many East Asians may also have poor hearing, which is why they make disgusting noises when eating). Therefore, the weaker your five senses are, the less of a disgust reflex you'll feel.

    You said in previous post that perfume and cologne are, historically, associated with the aristocracy. From my own schooling, I know that European aristocrats typically were descended from pastoralist Indo-Europeans.


  5. When I was a vegetarian, my sense of smell and taste was sharper than when I was eating meat.

  6. Carleton Coon mentioned a tribe in India that could hunt by smell alone.

  7. I would also find that plausible. There's less selection for smell with the advent of civilization. Plenty of animals have better senses of smell than humans.

  8. There is the oft reported association with pygmies having a superior sense of smell, which comes up, as discussed on Cochran's blog.

    I don't think smell has anything to do with the surface area of the inside of the exterior nose. That would be bizarre in the extreme, especially given only humans have it yet have a weaker sense of smell. The nerves for sense of smell are (at least mostly) in the internal nose, in any case - google Olfactory epithelium.

    I believe larger internal nasal cavities are found in all (or at least almost all) non-Caucasoid groups, irregardless of size of the actual external nose.

  9. Steve Sailer posted an article claiming violent crime rose in 2012.

    Do you think the coming wave will be more similar to the New Wave or the Jazz Age? I'm thinking more the latter. If right now we're in the Gilded Age, than the Jazz Age follows.


  10. Off Topic, but very much on topic for your blog:


  11. I'll do a separate post on this stuff, but briefly I don't think a single year of 1.2% increase means anything certain right now. 2006 showed a 1.2% increase, but those are just the occasional upward-tick years in the middle of the overall downward trend.

    We'll need to see several years of increase before we can conclude there's a real pattern to be explained.

    "If right now we're in the Gilded Age, than the Jazz Age follows."

    Right. Peter Turchin's data on cycles in inequality (etc. -- all related to economics and political instability) predicts a coming turn around 2020. If the crime rate begins rising around then, while inequality starts shrinking (as it did after 1920, and continuing through ~1970), then we'll be in for another Jazz Age.

  12. Er, 2006 showed a 1.9% increase.

  13. what was immigration like in the Jazz Age?

    I don't much about the Jazz Age, but from the Hemingway stories I've read, we can expect lots of young men emigrating out of America or just traveling around the world getting into trouble, widespread involvement in athletics and the arts, and Americans becoming involved in genuinely dangerous activities(like bullfighting, wilderness-exploring, or partaking in a foreign political revolution).

    Also, wouldn't it be similar to the 60s? According to your template combined with Turchin's, the 60s were high crime but low inequality. its interesting that the 70s get classed with the 80s, which makes sense if we assume that inequality didn't become noticeable till the late 70s. Think Star Wars - battling the evil empire.

    It might also look like Bush's first term: tax cuts, immigration programs, and a massive invasion of the Mideast.


  14. Michael Soren6/5/13, 2:45 AM

    I've had occasion to visit among Sahrawi people--nomadic pastoralists from the Western Sahara--and it is common when gathering (almost as common as serving tea!) that someone will pass around a bottle of cologne and everyone will give themselves a refreshing splash.

  15. "what was immigration like in the Jazz Age?"

    It had been soaring through the Gilded Age and early 20th C., and then got choked off in the mid-'20s. One too many Italian anarchists lobbing bombs on Wall Street kind of gets the elite's attention about the dangers of importing foreigners.

    "Also, wouldn't it be similar to the 60s? According to your template combined with Turchin's, the 60s were high crime but low inequality."

    Maybe, but the '60s were the last stage of a long trend of falling inequality, whereas we're still heading upward in inequality. The Jazz Age saw that turnaround point in inequality during the '20s, and that's what's in store for us in the next 10-20 years.

  16. what measures/statistics does Peter Turchin use to measure equality vs. inequality? is immigration one of them?


  17. we'll be in for another Jazz Age.

    There'll still be the difference in that the Jazz Age was very low median age, while median ages are a lot higher now. The culture will be generally a lot less youthful and youth dominated than in the Jazz Age or the Baby Boom / Rock Age.

    Also I've been thinking about this more recently and it seems like there is a much stronger case for increased outgoingness and extraversion -> violent crime than the observe.

    The causal relationship between outgoingness and extraversion -> violent crime seems really simple - more people out and about and more risk taking attitudes leads to more crime, less people about and about and more cautious attitudes leads to less crime.

    While the violent crime -> outgoingness and extroversion relationship seems more airy fairy. I.e. sometimes people react to violence by becoming more extroverted and outgoing, sometimes by showing more withdrawal and avoidance, and after a while depending on the rate of relative increase or decrease for a while, even if absolute rates haven't increased or decreased very much (which is the case for victimisation and offending, certainly considering just Whites in the USA or other countries than the USA), people switch their strategies.

    Another thing it seems like trends in narcissism and dismissiveness are generally are separate from the crime trends and perhaps map to inequality if anything at all - survey data on narcissistic personality traits show certainly through the 80s period and before, mapping to rises in inequality rather than crime rates.

    Also international comparisons between low inequality and high inequality nations on self enhancement show it as high in unequal nations (USA, China, Latin America in general) and low in equal nations (Germany, Japan, Belgium). For example - http://mindblog.dericbownds.net/2011/11/economic-inequality-is-linked-to-biased.html .

    "The extent to which people engage in biased self-perception is influenced by the economic structure of their society, specifically its level of economic inequality. They gathered data from 1,625 participants in five continents and 15 nations: Europe (Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain), the Americas (Peru, the United States, Venezuela), Asia (China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea), Africa (South Africa), and Oceania (Australia). Participants completed a standard questionnaire assessing self-enhancement. The bottom line is that people in societies with more income inequality tend to view themselves as superior to others, and people in societies with less income inequality tend to see themselves as more similar to their peers. "

    A lot of the Millenial trends in dismissiveness and glibness you speak of are attenuated or non-existent in the more equal nations (although almost all nations have shown inequality increases due to globalization), but tend to be high, for instance, in the South American nations which are rising violence.

    (Remaining agnostic about causality on the inequality question).

  18. Interesting post, Anonymous.

    In this case, I think we need to make a distinction between what crime does to a society and what inequality does.



  19. I became interested in the sense of smell by ethnicity after seeing an article about detection of smells in urine after eating certain foods, in this case asparagus. I became interested because the article uses a study that notes..."A study published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology found that 46 percent of British subjects and 100 percent of French subjects experience post-asparagus smelly pee."

    Now that is a very large difference in the percentage that detected the smell and those that did not. If surface area were a factor there shouldn't be that much difference in the British and French. Cultural differences and use of scents, as mentioned could be explored.

    I found this odd because one side of my family is of French descent and has an amazing sense of smell, myself included. If their was a correlation in sense of smell and environment my family being raised in America would eliminate that. Not the best test sample, but it's a start.

    Is there a genetic difference that is more prominent in people of certain regions in their sense of smell?


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