What would you do if you
had the misfortune, like a friend of mine, to drop your mobile phone
into a lavatory which was full of someone else`s shit? She said the
very idea of fishing it out was utterly disgusting, and when she took
it back to the shop and told them what had happened, they did not try
even the simplest test, but threw it straight into the bin.
Rollercoaster this week (xxx zzz) Claudia Hammond explores the science
of disgust. Why do some things disgust us, and is the emotion of
disgust hard-wired into us by our genes?
Charles Darwin wrote at
length about emotions: `The term 'disgust' means something offensive
to the taste, as actually perceived or vividly imagined; and anything
which causes a similar feeling, through the sense of smell, touch, and
even of eyesight. A smear of soup on a man's beard looks disgusting,
though there is of course nothing disgusting in the soup itself.
He described the
expression of disgust as appearing `chiefly in movements round the
mouth. The nose may be slightly turned up, which apparently follows
from the turning up of the upper lip; or the movement may be
abbreviated into the mere wrinkling of the nose. But as disgust also
causes annoyance, it is generally accompanied by a frown, and often by
gestures as if to push away or to guard oneself against the offensive
Disgust varies from
culture to culture; I understand the Japanese find quite disgusting
our habit, when we have a cold, of blowing the nose, collecting the
snot in a handkerchief, and carefully storing it away in a pocket.
A recent scientific
survey of 40,000 people showed that young women are most easily
disgusted, and that disgust is produced by things associated with
disease – not only dodgy food but also some insects, and bodily
fluids. The scientists concluded that disgust may be a defence
mechanism against disease, most important for women of child-bearing
contaminated by sewage has always been one of the world`s deadliest
killers. I am intrigued, therefore, by the fact that the Romans built
the great sewer in Rome – the cloaca maxima – not because they
knew of the link between dirty drinking water and disease, but simply
to get rid of the smell. Perhaps those hard-wired emotions saved them,
and us, from extinction.