In 1995, a Professor Wedekind of the University of Bern (that’s in Switzerland, in case you were wondering) asked a group of women to smell anonymous unwashed T-shirts worn by different men. Why? Well, what he discovered was that women consistently preferred the smell of men whose immune systems were different to their own. Believe it or not (and feel flattered or not) rodents have the same habits (although not the T-shirts, I’m fairly certain) of checking out how good their potential partners will be to fighting off disease, by sniffing their pheromones. Lovely. So perhaps what happens at speed-dating is nothing more than a sniff-test? And there’s some more evidence to back this up.
Over at the University of Chicago, a Dr McClintock conducted a different sweaty T-shirt study which reveals that women seem to have a strong preference for the sweat of a man who smells similar to their father. Apparently, a woman being attracted to her father’s genes makes sense. A man with these genes would be similar enough to her that their offspring would get a tried and tested immune system without the likelihood of any weird immunological conflicts from the two gene-sets, but he would still be different enough to ensure a wide range of genes for immunity.
It’s all fascinating stuff, but there are two questions left in my mind:
1 – how do they know which sweaty T-shirt smelled like a woman’s father (the mind boggles, it really does)
2 – why were both these tests conducted on women? Could it be that the only sweaty T-shirt test normally conducted by the male nose is the one that checks if a dirty T-shirt can be worn for another day before it needs washing?
Scientist cartoon provided by Robin Hutton, used under a creative commons attribution licence.