It was 50 years ago that a pair of researchers first coined the word pheromone. Scientists Peter Karlson and Martin Lüscher used the word to name chemicals they thought carried messages between individuals of the same species. One of the first such instances was noticed in female silk moths. When the moths secreted a chemical called bombykol, male moths went into mating frenzy.
In the decades since, pheromones have been suspected of playing a critical role in human relationships. Studies have shown that certain pheromones can make the menstrual cycles of women who live together fall in sync.
But now new research indicates that the wonder chemical may have no role at all to play in human relationships. In the 15 January issue of the journal Nature, zoologist Tristram D. Wyatt of the University of Oxford says efforts to isolate pheromones that impact sexual attraction in human beings have proved futile. In an essay titled “Fifty years of pheromones”, Wyatt raises doubts over the prevailing idea that pheromones are involved in attracting members of the opposite species.
Wyatt highlights studies which have shown that organs used by other animals to smell pheromones may have disappeared in humans in the course of evolution. Our primate ancestors probably dropped vomeronasal receptors—used to detect pheromones—around the time they developed colour vision.
“It may be at that point that we moved from running things mostly by pheromones to doing things much more in the visual fashion,” Wyatt says in his essay.
While Wyatt and other researchers continue their hunt to isolate human pheromones, if they indeed exist, those seeking to impress the opposite sex are probably better off falling back on old-fashioned good grooming and a pleasing personality.