Being the hopeless romantic, I worked hard last year to come up with just the right thing to say to my wife on Valentine’s Day. I decided to let my lovely bride know that I really liked her signaling traits. Sadly, that didn’t go over so well.
This year, I think I am going to tell my wife that I like the way she smells.
I don’t know how Amy will receive my romantic overture, but I do know that scientific research explains the preference I have for my wife’s odors—it reflects the composition of a key component of her immune system, specifically her major histocompatibility complex. And, my wife’s immune system really turns me on.
Odor Preference and Immune System Composition
Why am I so attracted to my wife’s scents, and hence, the composition of her immune system? Several studies help explain the connection.
In a highly cited study, researchers had men sleep in the same T-shirt for several nights in a row. Then, they asked women to rank the T-shirts according to odor preference. As it turns out, women had the greatest preference for the odor of T-shirts worn by men who had MHC genes that were the most dissimilar to theirs.
In another oft-cited study, researchers had 121 men and women rank the pleasantness of T-shirt odors and found that the ones they most preferred displayed odors that were most similar to those of their partners. Based on the results of another related study, it appears that this odor preference reflects dissimilarities in immune systems. Researchers discovered that the genetic differences in the MHC genes for 90 married couples were far more extensive than for 152 couples made up by randomly combining partners.
Body Odor and the Immune System
So, how does odor reflect the composition of the MHC genes? Researchers believe that the breakdown products from the MHC during the normal turnover of cellular components serves as the connection between the immune system and body odors.
The MHC is a protein complex that resides on the cell surface. This protein complex binds proteins derived from pathogens after these organisms have infected the host cell and, in turn, displays them on the cell surface for recognition by the cells of the immune system.
Association of Pathogen Proteins with MHCs
Image credit: By Scray (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org.licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Organisms possess a large number of MHC variants, making the genes that code the MHCs some of the most diverse in the human genome. Because the MHCs bind proteins derived from pathogens, the greater the diversity of MHC genes, the greater the capacity to respond to infectious agents.
As part of the normal turnover of cellular components, the MHCs are constantly being broken down and replaced. When this happens, protein fragments from the MHCs become dispersed throughout the body, winding up in the blood, saliva, and urine. Some researchers think that the microbes in the mouth and on the skin surface lining body cavities metabolize the MHC breakdown products leading to the production of odorants. And these odors tell us something about the immune system of our potential partners.
Advantages of Having a Partner with Dissimilar MHC Genes
When men and women with dissimilar MHC genes pair up, it provides a significant advantage to their children. Why? Because parental MHC gene dissimilarity translates into the maximal genetic diversity for the MHC genes of their children. And, as already noted, the more diverse the MHC genes, the greater the resistance to pathogens and parasites.
The attraction between mates with dissimilar immune genes is not limited to human beings. This phenomenon has been observed throughout the animal kingdom. And from studying mate attraction of animals, we can come to appreciate the importance of MHC gene diversity. For example, one study demonstrated that salmon raised in hatcheries displayed a much more limited genetic diversity for their MHC genes than salmon that live in the wild. As it turns out, hatchery-raised salmon are four times more likely to be infected with pathogens than those found in the wild.
Is Love Nothing More than Biochemistry?
Does the role odor preference plays in mate selection mean that love is merely an outworking of physiological mechanisms? Does it mean that there is not a spiritual dimension to the love we feel toward our partners? Does it mean that human beings are merely physical creatures? If so, does this type of discovery undermine the biblical view of humanity?
Hardly. In fact, this discovery makes perfect sense within a Christian worldview.
In his book The Biology of Sin, neuroscientist Matthew Stanford presents a model that helps make sense of these types of discoveries. Stanford points out that Scripture teaches that human beings are created as both material and immaterial beings, possessing a physical body and nonphysical mind and spirit. Instead of being a “ghost in the machine,” our material and immaterial natures are intertwined, interacting with each other. It is through our bodies (including our brain), that we interact with the physical world around us. The activities of our brain influence the activities of our mind (where our thoughts, feelings, and emotions are housed), and vice versa. It is through our spirit that we have union with God. Spiritual transformation can influence our brain’s activities and how we think; also, how and what we think can influence our spirit.
So, in light of Stanford’s model, we can make sense of how love can be both a physical and spiritual experience while preserving the biblical view of human nature.
Smells Like Intelligent Design
Clearly, the attraction between two people extends beyond body odor and other physical processes and features. Still, the connection between body odor and the composition of the MHC genes presents itself as an ingenious, elegant way to ensure that animal populations (and human beings) are best positioned to withstand the assaults of pathogens. As an old-earth creationist, this insight is exactly what I would expect, attracting me to the view that life on Earth, including human life, is the product of Divine handiwork.
Now, I am off to the chocolatier to get my wife a box of her favorite chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I don’t want her to decide that I stink as a husband.