Why does poo smell bad?
Why can’t men stop staring at cleavages?
Why does my wife fancy George Clooney?
Why won’t children eat their vegetables?
For the answers to these questions and many more, I’d like to welcome you to Uncle Will’s fabled and patented theory of everything. Okay, nearly everything. Well, some things. Maybe.
First, a disclaimer. At the heart of this unifying theory is a little thing called evolution. And a healthy dose of probability. If you’re the sort of person who insists that the world was created in six days, with one day off for a holiday, then you’re probably not going to like this. This is not one of those stories.
Let’s start from the beginning. Poo does not objectively smell bad.
I know, I know, that sounds weird. Stick with me for a second and it will all make sense in a moment.
There’s an ucky bit coming. When we smell something, what is really happening is that tiny particles of that thing are carried in the air to our noses. Our olfactory nerves decide what the thing smells like.
In other words, we smell something because the air is full of it. Incidentally, I know some people who are also full of it, but that’s another story.
But the smell of poo is only “bad” because we have decided that it is. To an animal that lives on dung, the smell must be somewhere between baking bread and freshly brewed coffee.
It’s a bit like the difference between a weed and a plant. A weed is only a plant with a bad marketing strategy. It’s a weed because we say it is. Nothing more, nothing less.
There is a very good reason for humans to want poo to smell bad. Unlike rabbits, flies and dung beetles, we can’t eat it. We would get sick very quickly if we tried. We need to avoid poo. Keep it away from our homes.
It follows that a tribe of pre-humans who didn’t like poo would be more successful than one that did or was indifferent. Their odds of survival might only be marginally different. But over millions of years those marginal differences would add up to a huge evolutionary shift. We would consider the smell of poo to be bad. A thing to avoid.
It’s just probability doing its thing.
That also helps to explain what we find attractive about a romantic partner. The most successful humans in evolutionary terms are those that have more babies. Over millennia, we have evolved to look for traits in our partners that would help to ensure healthy babies.
It might be borderline sexist to say it, but men are instinctively looking for women who are:
- Young – to be of child-bearing age
- Endowed with boobs – to feed the babies
- Curvy – including child-bearing hips
- Smooth of skin – to show that there is no disease.
- Symmetrical in their faces and bodies
Similarly, women are pre-programmed to look for men who are:
- Healthy, fit and powerful – good traits to pass on to their babies
- Successful and caring – able to look after the babies as they grow up
- Reliable and constant – he’s not to run away and find another mate.
- Not necessarily young, but certainly capable
And that is why men stare at cleavages and my wife fancies George Clooney. Evolution has hard wired men to want to sire multiple progeny and women to want to be looked after.
Right now I can imagine that some people are spluttering into their coffee with steam coming out of their ears. You might be saying that I am not a sex object. Or – there is more to relationships than having babies. Or what about same sex relationships? Or I do all the looking after in my household.
Or even that you fancy Brad Pitt more than George Clooney.
And you are absolutely right. Humanity is going beyond its evolutionary roots. I am talking about where we have come from, not where we are now or where we are going next.
When you think about it, and when you take creationism out of the picture, there is no other way that we could have evolved. Having babies is a good evolutionary survival tactic. Arguably, the best there is until we can learn the secret of immortality. A group of people or animals will do better by having lots of babies than they will by having fewer babies.
What about encouraging children to eat their greens?
The latest theory is that this too is linked to evolution. Before the agricultural revolution and before Waitrose, homo sapiens lived in an environment where not all plant life was safe to eat. We can’t digest fibrous stuff like grass, some plants are poisonous and the less said about mushrooms the better.
So we all learned to eat only the stuff that we knew to be safe. Things we had eaten before. Meat. Bread. Chocolate hobnobs.
And what do many children instinctively dislike?
- Vegetables (which could be poisonous).
- Anything new (which they can’t trust).
- Anything covered in a sauce other than tomato ketchup.
- Anything with bits in it, like tomato pips.
In catering circles, it is apparently known as “black and white food”. Many kids like food that doesn’t touch other types of food. No sauces. Nothing they haven’t seen before. Nothing with bits in it.
These kids aren’t being fussy or awkward. They are simply following their evolutionary programming. They are staying safe by avoiding foods that might poison them.
Read more about it here.
Right now I have probably turned you off by the talk of poo, annoyed you by caveman sex talk and given your children a perfect excuse not to eat their asparagus.
Kids – it’s poisonous! Avoid! Avoid!
So I had probably better not go the whole way and tell you how I think this helps to explain religion. That really would be a way to make friends and influence people. Not.
Maybe that had better be a story for another time.