Thursday, March 30, 2006

My literary journal subscriptions all expired years ago and I've tried to make do since with an occasional quick glance through periodicals at the library. But after hearing how the Virginia Quarterly Review had beat out the New Yorker and several other top magazines in nominations in the 2006 National Magazine Awards and realizing that a quick glance through the latest issue won't suffice, I've decided I need to become a subscriber to at least this one; there's no way I can do justice to any issue of the VQR with the check-out periods as brief as they are.

Favorite neurobiologist and monkey-man Robert Sapolsky has an essay, "The Ofactory Lives of Primates," in the VQR Portfolio on Evolution and Intelligent Design. I should probably excerpt the delightful account of the primate wedding from the beginning of the essay, but I'm opting instead for the recently-discovered answer to what the two percent difference between human and chimp DNA is all about:

And it turns out to be weird. Not a thing having to do with our brains working so differently than theirs—no genetic explanation for literature, art, megastates, termite sticks, the bunny hop (which, increasingly, strikes me as logical). Our "me-ness" is not all that anchored in our genes. There were some genetic differences concerning body hair. Others about immune function—chimps handle malaria better than we do, we handle tuberculosis better than they do. Some about reproduction, making it unlikely that there's some human/chimp hybrid out there. But the biggest difference concerned olfaction. When an odor—a molecule that has floated off, becomes airborne, from sweat, from a mound of cinnamon, or a rotten egg, or pollinating flower or exhaust pipe—reaches your nose, it binds to a subset of literally thousands of different olfactory receptors which, when activated in particular patterns, send a Guess what I just smelled message to your brain. Those receptors are coded for by genes, and it turns out that half, half of the genetic differences between chimps and humans concern olfactory receptors. They've got them, and we've functionally disabled ours into what are called pseudogenes. As we split off from our last common ancestor a few million years back—an ape already with an atrophied olfactory system—the most common genetic shift that would ultimately differentiate us from chimps was that we decayed into having a lousy sense of smell.

And what are the consequences? We have become disproportionately specialized in our other senses. We can be aroused by an erotic picture. We can be moved to tears by music. We can read this essay in Braille.

. . . . Our senses aren't great. But our thinking about our senses is amazing. . . . We have been freed from the concrete here and now of sensation—as we have been from the here and now of emotion, of thought, of everything. And while that may make for less interesting wedding parties, it sure is central to what makes us human.

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