I’ve gone down another rabbit hole with Bill Bryson. I’ve been along for the ride with him several times as he made ‘notes’ from small islands and big continents. And his idea of a history of nearly everything was great fun. His idea for The Body as A Guide for Occupants has been as enjoyable and informative a read as any of his books.
A few chapters in and I found myself disagreeing with some of his comments on hormones. You might know (or recall) that 20 or 30 year years ago, people at clubs and disco were buying pheromones as attractive love potions. The perfume of pheromones would attract mates to them for a dance, the night, the week, life or so it was hoped and hyped.
Some forms of science had announced that humans were attracted to pheromones. Plausible, since butterflies do it.
Then science changed its mind or at least science was reported to have changed its mind. It seemed that pheromones didn’t work for humans after all. Then some Germans opined with a research based explanation for why babies turn to their mother to suckle. Mice do it too, apparently. It must be pheromones, they concluded.
Bill Bryson tells us that an Australian study in 2017 concluded that there were no pheromones involved in human biochemistry. He also told us that we don’t understand all of the proteins that exist within our bodies.
Pheromones are just hormones that are mobile outside of their host. And hormones are a form of protein. Plants use ethylene as a hormone to promote ripening. They also broadcast ethylene (thus use it as a pheromone) to send signals to other trees to ripen in concert.
This nit picking on pheromones is not a criticism of Bryson’s excellent book. It’s simply a reminder that we shouldn’t read it like a novel. Don’t suspend your disbelief. You probably turned to your mother’s breast soon after birth. You almost certainly learned to smell milk lest it had soured before you put it in your cereal and it’s the same with science. Is this pushing an analogy a bit too far? Think as you read.
One really nice point that Bryson bring home is that we know so little about women because so much is focussed on men. ‘For most of recorded history we have known the shockingly little about women and how they are put together.’ I happen to have been simultaneously reading Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez whose subtitle prepares us for a story ‘exposing data bias in a world of design for men’. Shocking is the right word.
Bryson’s Body is a great read, full of amazing facts and the wonderful news that so many things remain to be explained. There is plenty of work for many generations of children who would aspire to be scientists, ethicists and useful. Perhaps they could address the excess consumption of food and reductions in physical activity that are a mark of today’s successful societies.
‘It is been suggested that children growing up today will be the first in modern history to live shorter, less healthy lives than those of their parents. We aren’t just eating ourselves into early graves, it seems, but breeding children to jump in alongside us.’