Facial Hair Is Biologically Useless. So Why Do Humans Have It?

What signal does facial hair send? Well, here’s where it gets a little compli­cated, as ornamental traits go. University of New Mexico professor Geoffrey Miller, one of the preeminent evolutionary psychologists in the field, put it this way: “The two main explanations for male facial hair are intersexual attraction (attracting females) and intrasexual competition (intimidating rival males).” Basically, facial hair signals one thing to potential partners (namely virility and sexual maturity, hubba-hubba-type stuff) and some­thing else to potential rivals (formidability and wisdom or godliness). Taken together, these signals confer their own brand of elevated status to the men with the most majestic mustaches or the biggest, burliest beards.

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The signal that facial hair sends also tends to be stronger and more reliable between males, who are more commonly rivals, than it is between males and females, who are more commonly partners. In fact, evolutionary biologists will tell you (if you ask them) that while some females really like facial hair, and some don’t, and some couldn’t care less, more often than not attraction has as much to do with beard density as anything else. That is, if you’re in a place where there are a lot of beards—say, a lumberjack convention—then a clean-shaven face is more appealing, but if you’re surrounded by bare faces, then a beard is best.

In evolutionary genetics, this is called “negative frequency depen­dence” (NFD), which is science-speak for the idea that when a trait is rare within a population it tends to have an advantage. In guppies, for example, males with a unique combination of colored spots mate more often and are preyed upon less. This is a huge competitive advantage. It’s like going to Vegas expecting to lose $1,000 but hoping to break even, only to end up winning $1,000 instead. That’s a $2,000 swing! It’s the same thing for a trait with NFD selection. The trait goes from fighting for its life to being the life of the party. The downside is that the competitive advantage can result in overpopulation of others with the same trait very quickly, because of all the getting-it-on the very interesting-looking guppy does—which means it loses its rarity and becomes common. Not to worry, nature has a solution for that: As more guppies bear that same trait, it leads to a decrease in interest from mates and an increase in attention from predators. What was once the hot new guppy thing becomes old news, in other words.

This yo-yoing back and forth between common and uncommon doesn’t just explain the variability in the attractiveness of facial hair from population to population; it also explains why the dominant theory for the evolution of facial hair has begun to resolve around intersexual competition. Because it’s not enough simply to be attractive: You also have to be more attractive than the people around you, and in enough of the right ways to stand out. This goes a long way toward understanding the ebb and flow in the popularity of facial hair across time. Sporting a killer ’stache or a bushy beard is only effective, evolutionarily, as long as it still makes you part of the hot new guppy thing around the pond. When it makes you old news, shaving becomes the more effective choice.

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