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Chemists Discover Why the Nose Is Hypersensitive to Sulfur Odors (scientificamerican.com)
15 points by kungfudoi on Dec 15, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 6 comments

> Evolutionarily, it pays to have a nose that can pick up the minutest presence of thiols, says study co-author Eric Block, a chemist at the University at Albany, State University of New York. The sulfur compounds are released by rotting food, for instance, and some predators give off olfactory cues to their presence in this form.

Ah the classic, "Your body evolved to let you know when things will kill you". That's usually a successful evolutionary process.

I feel that this is the most commonly misunderstood thing about evolution by laypeople.

'evolving' as a verb is incredibly misleading. There is no active process that is 'evolving'. The body didn't 'realize' that this was useful so it kept it. There was no 'success'. We're merely looking at survival bias.

When scientists say that X is probably because of evolution, they don't really explain how X happened. Just a random genetic copying error, not anything exciting. Instead, they are saying that 'not X' has disappeared because those individuals had a higher chance to die before reproducing.

Okay if you want to get technical, bodies with more sensitivity to detect things that could kill them had a higher survival rate prior to reproducing. That in turn lead to higher sensitivity to detecting things that can kill us.

Saying "they evolved to..." is just short hand for "others were more likely to die so X won out".

Sorry, this wasn't meant against you or your post personally, just a random rant about how poor language choices can confuse a lot of people.

And by that I don't mean that you made a bad choice, just when the terms were introduced.

I like the expression "evolution isn't toward, it's away".

Original paper link: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jacs.6b06983

The paper mentions that in 1977 a Robert Crabtree predicted that copper(I) would be a likely coordination site. Copper is a pretty reactive metal when it comes to sulfur, and lets it do all sorts of stuff.

Here is a tangentially related post from In The Pipeline: http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2012/05/15/thi...

Which discusses some derivatives of selenium, the element directly below sulfur on the periodic table.

From personal experience, you can get used to the way sulfur compounds smell. Amines, and other functional groups stay vile.

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