Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Face it, this post is hairy!

“You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion” wrote G.K. Chesterton.   Of course.

Or, as a late great-uncle--a bearded man himself--put it, "I don't grow a beard.  I simply stopped shaving."

As a bearded male, I have more than a passing intellectual interest in beards.  If only I could recall that exact moment in graduate school when I decided that I would grow one--a beard, that is.  But, those are the moments that I seem to have forgotten.  Just like I don't really remember when it was that the first hair on my chest showed up.  Or on the legs?   For that matter, when did the first pubic hair appear?  I wish somebody had told me to remember those historic events in my own life; instead, I remember trivial events of world history!

Intellectually, scientists have long been puzzled by the facial hair--on men, to be clear.  As I noted earlier in the context of many young men sporting beards these days,
The answer, according to The University of Western Australia researchers, is because men are feeling under pressure from other men and are attempting to look aggressive by being more flamboyant with their whiskers.
Published in the journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, Dr Cyril Grueter and colleagues were investigating the idea that in big societies, male primates have developed increasingly ostentatious "badges" which may enhance male sexual attractiveness to females and give them the edge over other males.   
But, there is more to the scientific curiosity about male facial hair.  A lot more.  Especially because it is so unique:
It is tempting to think that beards are a holdover from our much hairier progenitors, that for whatever reason, this trait survived as we developed into the naked ape. Yet bonobos, our closest relative in the animal kingdom, lack hair around their mouths—precisely where the human beard grows. It would seem that, if anything, human beings have added hair to their faces, even as they lost it most other places. Even if our ape ancestors had had hairy faces, a question would remain: Why did women lose this hair while men retained it? As it is, a hairy chin and upper lip are virtually unique to the human male.
No, do not slip into thinking that we were made in god's image; most Indian male gods are clean-shaven, which would make me a satan then!

What if the beard is nothing but an evolutionary accident?  You know, that old theory--shit happens!
But most scientists have been reluctant to let it rest there. For one thing, insignificance is an unprovable supposition. It is impossible to say for certain that beards are simply along for the ride, at least not until all the functions of all the human genome are discovered. Scientists seek reasons for things, after all, and it is far more interesting to suppose that beards serve a purpose, obscure though it may be.
In other words, scientists always want to know why that shit happens.  Or, here, why the male facial hair?
A second possible solution builds on Darwin’s idea that beards are ornaments that charmed prehistoric women and can presumably still charm women today. Adherents of this line of thought have worked to replace Darwin’s reliance on vague notions of taste with more concrete psychological and biological explanations for women’s preferences. A third theory takes the opposite approach, arguing that hair is a threat device useful in intimidating rival males and establishing dominance. Women, then, have been attracted, not to the beard as such, but rather to the social dominance that impressively bearded men achieve over other men.
My beard serves a practical purpose too--stroking the beard makes it seem like I am a thoughtful and thinking professor in the classroom.  It works, as long as students do not find out that the beard is a mere prop in the awesome stage that the world is, especially in the fifth part (age):
And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part.


Anne in Salem said...

You neglect one part of the mystery - the difference in hirsutism among different races. Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans rarely have significant facial hair. Many Mexicans and Central/South Americans can't grow an impressive beard. I am unsure of the ability of Blacks to grow beards; my observations are limited. If the scientists wonder why men have beards, will they go a step further and determine why some races are more follicularly challenged than others?

Men have beards so Shakespeare can describe later-middle-aged men and so Auntie Mame can threaten to pluck them when irritated. Or, men have beards so children have something to buy fathers for Christmas and birthdays. The mystery is unsolvable.

Sriram Khé said...

The article that I had linked to notes about how anthropologists even during Darwin's time had noted that men in some geographic areas seem unable to grow facial hair:
"Anthropologists of his day reported that human populations varied widely in the fullness of the male beard. It was believed that Native Americans, for example, were nearly incapable of growing them. Darwin surmised that some ancestral women in some particular places must not have liked the beard and because of that prejudice continually selected against it."

The same article ends with this:
"French anthropologist Christian Bromberger acknowledged social scientists’ failure to explain the meaning of hair. ... He called for the study of “hairology”

It is an unsolvable mystery, indeed ;)

Ramesh said...

Of course its a very solvable mystery. The reasons why men grow beards are

- you can stroke it while looking professorial as you have rightly observed
- you can alternate between having it and shaving it off and thus practice your indecisiveness
- you can take part in the No shave November or Decembeard and contribute to charity while filling up Facebook pages
- You can contribute such gems to the Twitterworld as "I scratched my beard now"
- You can drive that horrible company Gillette (Anne - are you reading this ?!!) into bankruptcy

Sriram Khé said...

Seems like a rant from a follicle-challenged profit-minded corporate executive loyal to one multinational corporation that shall not be named, and who detests Facebook and Twitter ;)

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