You might think all the facial hair you’re seeing on the street is a way of attracting a mate. It might not be so simple.
When looking at evolution we see the purpose of fingers, gait, torso shapes, but what is the point of a beard? Children, women, and a whole bunch of men manage just fine without one. But take a walk down some streets these days and you’ll be confronted with all sizes and shapes of groomed (and less groomed) facial hair – from designer stubble to waxed moustaches and hipster beards.
When we see men paying attention to their appearance, it’s easy to assume that they’re just angling for partners. But our research on beards and voices shows that beards probably evolved at least partly to help men boost their standing among other men.
Compared to males and females of many other primates, men and women on average look very different from each other – partly thanks to men’s facial hair. And when we see differences between males and females, the explanation often boils down to evolution through sexual selection – the process that favors traits that boost mating opportunities.
But interestingly, women don’t seem that interested in beards. Some women love them and are strongly attracted to them. While some studies have found that women like a bit or even a lot of facial hair on men, other studies have reported that they prefer the clean-shaven look. The lack of consistent evidence means we can’t conclude that beards evolved because women were attracted to them. It's just not conclusive.
Researchers have therefore suggested that a second type of sexual selection may hold the answer. To reproduce, it’s often not enough to simply be attractive. You also have to compete with the same sex for mating opportunities. The funny, shy guy at the back of the bar isn’t going to stand a chance when competing with his cockier brothers otherwise. And there’s evidence that beards evolved to help men do just that. The stand out from the crowd and appear more manly to prospective mates.
In times with a greater proportion of single men competing for fewer women, beards and moustaches became more fashionable .
A man’s ability to grow a fulsome and staggering beard isn’t actually neatly linked to his testosterone levels. Despite this, a number of studies have suggested that both men and women perceive men with beards as older, stronger and more aggressive than others. And dominant men can get more mating opportunities by intimidating rivals to stand aside. It's just nature at work. Take a look at deer or dogs. All animals have examples of alpha male behavior to push them to the top of the pile for mates.
This is something that holds true both in modern times and throughout human history. Dominance can provide a staggering short-cut to mating opportunities: genetic evidence indicates that about 8% of the male population of Asia today is a descendant of Genghis Khan and his family.
A study by the appropriately-named Nigel Barber linked British facial hair fashions between 1842 and 1971 to the ratio of men to women in the marriage market. It found that in times with a greater proportion of single men competing for fewer women, beards and moustaches became more fashionable.
Bearded warlord Genghis Khan conquered much of Asia - and added credence to the idea bearded men are dominant
Beards aren’t the only feature that can convey dominance – voices do too. People tend to vote for leaders with lower-pitched voices, and during competitive tasks men lower the pitch of their voice if they think they are more dominant than their opponent. Like facial hair, voice pitch also easily distinguishes men and women.
To help trace the evolutionary origin of beards and voices, we tested whether they were seen as attractive, dominant or both. We asked 20 men and 20 women to rate the dominance and attractiveness of six men who were video-taped on four occasions as they let their facial hair grow. We then used computer software to create four versions of each video where the men’s voices had been changed to sound higher and lower-pitched.
Beards didn’t affect a man’s attractiveness rating consistently, but those who let their facial hair grow were perceived as more dominant
We found that male voices that sounded deeper than average were rated as the most attractive. Really deep or high pitches weren’t as popular. In contrast, men’s voices were perceived as increasingly dominant the lower they were. Beards didn’t affect a man’s attractiveness rating consistently, but those who let their facial hair grow were perceived as more dominant than others – in line with previous research.
The tension between attracting a mate and competing with others doesn’t just apply to beards and voices. Men on average also think their body should be more muscular than women report that they want, while women on average believe they need to be thinner and wear more make-up than men report that they want. We’re not always that great at judging what the other sex finds appealing, but maybe that’s in part because our instincts are to out-compete our peers as well as attract a partner. So it may be more about a pissing match with our perceived rivals than actually attracting the mate. Men want to stand out from the crowd because they THINK it will make them more attractive, when in actuality there is no evidence to support this argument.
Maybe men thinking they know what women want. No, that would never happen.
Of course, most of this research has been carried out within western populations. Make-up use, average body composition, and even the very ability to grow facial hair all differ enormously across the world – meaning we could get different results elsewhere.
But the point is that, whether it’s facial hair or something else, we often see this pattern of competing requirements leading to differences in appearances. Think you can please everyone all of the time? You can’t.
Finally, with this immense beard you have cultivated, you need to take responsibility over more than just your new and powerful aura. You need to take responsibility for your own health. The icky and embarrassing to discuss stuff.
You need to Know Thy Nuts.
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