Why do men grow beards?
I was thinking about this recently. Why, exactly, do men grow beards? That is, what is the evolutionary purpose of a beard? I know why men grow beards now. They’re just plain attractive. Women flock to a handsome beard, so beard up gentlemen, and be proud! But why did men start growing beards in the first place, and why don’t women have beards?
The first thought that came to mind was that men grew beards to stay warm during the winter. Which makes sense, at first, until you realize that women get cold during the winter too. So why don’t they grow beards? Historically, women worked outdoors nearly as much as men, so if beards keep men warmer, women had every reason to evolve them. But they didn’t (well, most of them).
So I did some research. As it happens…
Numerous studies have been done over the years about how people respond to beards. Some showed that women are more attracted to men with beards, while others proved the exact opposite. To settle the matter once and for all, a study recently completed that interviewed men and women from New Zealand, a Western land that has been exposed to Western media, and from indigenous Samoa that had no exposure to Western media. The subjects were shown various pictures of men with beards and without beards, making a variety of facial expressions, and of various ages. These were the results:
Men with Beards Look Older
When you grow a beard, you’re broadcasting to the world that you have matured beyond your baby-faced boyhood, and joined the ranks of man. It appears that this works, too. Both men and women from both Western and indigenous lands judged bearded men to look older than they were, and clean-shaven men to look younger than they were. Historically, age has been seen as a very good thing, and societies all across the globe have ascribed wisdom and temperance to age. It is only recently that our cultures have worshiped a “cult of youth”, lauding teen celebrities, teen pregnancies, and teen issues–thus, why most men are clean shaven today.
Men with Beards have Higher Social Status
The majority of those interviewed considered the bearded men to have more important social standings in their cultures compared to the baby-faced men. And this makes perfect sense. As you age, you get more things done in life, form more relationships and partnerships, earn more wealth, and acquire more power and authority. With this time grows, also, an epic beard. Clean-shaven boys, who have not yet grown beards, have not had the time to gain wealth and social standing–and so most people think the beardless have a lower social status.
These findings along with those of the current study suggest that dominant men may grow facial hair in order to effectively signal their social status and dominance. [source]
Men with Beards Have Greater Confidence
People perceive bearded men as having greater confidence for two main reasons.
BattleThe beard is no boon in battle. All your enemy has to do is pull on your beard to hurt you, and perhaps even kill you. This is why Alexander the Great instructed all his troops to shave off their beards. That said, a bearded man who wades into battle anyway, knowing that the beard is a handicap, is telling the world that he’s so confident in his fighting abilities that he can defeat any foe–despite the beard.
Thus, beards may directly signal competitive ability to rival males. [Beards increased the] perceived status of men and may increase the social distance between rival men. – [source]
Additionally, men with beards look scarier and more aggressive than men without beards. Soldiers in battle intimidate their foes with beards, with hopes that their enemy’s courage will fail and they’ll flee. (A full beard looks the most dominant, of all other beard styles). Bearded men give off the perception of having larger jaws, and often exhibit “aggressive jaw-thrusting” behaviors in battle. [source]
Among the Medlpa tribe of Papua New Guinea, when posing an aggressive and threatening facial expression, men have been observed to pull apart the beard with both hands (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989). Similarly, beards are sometimes incorporated into gestural “beard jutting” threat displays, which consist of flicking the back of the fingers of one hand under the chin and outward, causing the beard to become erected and thrust out toward the rival.
Hairy hominids have always struggled with parasites and bugs for eons (which is why you should use beard shampoo). One of the reasons homo sapiens shed body hair was to rid their bodies of more places for bugs to hide. However, a bearded man is giving prime nesting ground to bugs of all types. Thus, a man with a beard, who is not ill, is boasting of his good health and superior immune system, advertising his genetic fitness to potential mates.
Female preferences for male [beards] could be due to their signaling the male’s ability to withstand or resist parasitic infection. Hair on the face and body are potential localized breeding sites for disease-carrying ectoparasites. (Nenoff et al. 2009; Weiss 2009).
Do women find beards attractive?
No. That is, yes, and no. When asked whether they found the bearded man or the clean-shaven man more attractive, women across the board, from Western countries and from indigenous countries, slightly preferred the clean-shaven face to the bearded one. However, despite their attraction, women still married and reproduced with bearded men more than clean-shaven men, as indicated by one surprising fact:
That’s right, beard’s didn’t evolve to keep us warm, or to shield us from UV light, or some nonsense like that. Instead, beards were bred in men, much the same way we breed certain physical traits in dogs, due to the fact that bearded men married and reproduced with more women.
Men, more than women, ascribed higher social status to other men with beards. They feared and respected bearded men more. So, bearded men received higher social positions, acquired greater wealth, and were most likely to marry and reproduce, ensuring that their descendants also carried genes for robust beards. Women found bearded men more desirable, because other men gave bearded men more respect, despite the fact that women thought clean-shaven men were more physically attractive.
This also explains why women don’t grow beards. Men were less interested in a woman’s wealth, power, and social standing, and were instead more interested in her beauty. So, non-bearded women were more likely to reproduce, and they produced more women who did not grow beards.
Given that a beard makes a man look older than his real age and women typically prefer a partner who is 2–3 years older than themselves (Buss 1989; Kenrick and Keefe 1992), it seems reasonable to suspect that beards may enhance male facial attractiveness to women. Some previous studies have found that bearded men are rated as more socially mature, sincere, masculine, self-confident, and courageous than clean-shaven faces… Such traits are visually conspicuous and communicate an individual male’s age and dominance status. [source]
It’s interesting to learn why our ancestors first started growing beards. These findings can either influence our reasons for growing our own beards, or not. As for me, I grow a beard because it is comfortable and I like the way I look in one. That’s enough for me.