There are a lot of dumb-looking people out there. Okay, I know, I'm one to talk, considering I generally look like a Night Train spokesperson that slept in a dryer at Laundry City. But I'm not talking about ugly people; there's nothing you can do about that, and beauty's in the eye of the beholder anyway. I'm talking about people who, in the name of fashion – or anti-fashion, or plain carelessness – that plain look ridiculous.
Walking around Brooklyn, I think it all comes down to hair. Some other folks rock these crazy off-camber haircuts and actually pull it off. Other people are cruising around with Padawan braids, beards styled to look like flames, crazy thick eyebrows like the girl on the right in the HBO Girls ads, and moustaches with the middle two inches shaved off. We all pay a ton of attention to our hair, and in the case of dudes, it seems like a lot of that emphasis is on our faces. Why do we care so much?
Tom Selleck has the great moustache in history, followed closely by my dad's. Look at him in the 80s: wearing nothing but Hawaiian shirts and driving the crappy Ferrari 308. Yet he was the coolest dude on TV, and it's all because of his 'stache. We all know why, too: that bushy, deep black patch of lip hair made old Tom look overwhelmingly manly.
I just watched this five times in a row, fist-pumping the whole way through.
That's exactly why we care about hair: It's an incredible indicator of who we are. It's no coincidence that lip fuzz starts appearing on young men right around when their pubes do. The growth of facial hair in males is a genetic trait, which means it's most likely hung around because it's advantageous. That advantage appears to one of dominance: in evolutionary terms, a guy with a beard is not only sexually mature, he may be more strong and fit than a guy without.
Facial hair is hard to fake. Even with modern Hollywood magic, it's pretty clear when a baby-smooth dude is going for the Santa look. And facial hair, like our head hair, requires good health and a quality diet to look all silken and smooth. Plus, it grays over time, which was the best indicator of a man's age before the concept of age existed. Look at ZZ Top in 1973 versus current day: even with what I'd assume is a healthy beard budget, they're just not the same.
Of course, it seems rather obvious that facial hair has sexual undertones because ladies don't tend to have much. It's the testosterone boost young men (and not young women) experience during puberty that causes the scruff to bloom, but why don't women get to savor the joy of finding food scraps in their flavor saver?
Moustaches work as an indicator of sexual indicator because they’re nearly impossible to fake.
Sexual dimorphism is common in the animal kingdom, and often physical differences – like males being larger than females, or vice versa – is linked to which sex competes more for the other. Male elephant seals fight bloody battles in order to impress groups of females, and it's no surprise that they're up to three times larger than female seals.
Or take lions, for example. Male lions fight – sometimes in Warriors-style gangs — with other males to win the affection of harems. And not only are male lions larger than their counterparts, they have these massive manes!
But who has the bigger mane?
There's only one minor issue here: men, who've been gifted with beards, these wonderful exhibitions of their own virility, keep shaving them off! Why? Well, the stuffy gents over at the Wall Street Journal once suggested that beards are an indicator of someone who's bad at business, thanks to an article about corporate types who grew beards after losing their jobs. That may mean the clean-shaven look is a sign of success and responsibility, as razors aren't cheap and you have to do it everyday. When male competition increasingly comes with the wallet rather than the fists, perhaps succeeding in the boardroom (and shaving that luscious facial hair) is more important than showing off your brute manliness.
Actually, I think that's exactly where moustaches come in. Beards – despite being trustworthy — do have a kind of vagabond stigma about them. (And, because being cool is still more crucial to getting chicks than bank accounts or fighting, that's why so many dudes still have them.) But the moustache offers a sort of middle ground. You're getting to show off how manly you are, but it's still acceptable – nay, lauded – in many circles. They instill respect because they're the perfect balance between our red-meat-and-violence roots and our modern penchant for being, you know, clean.
Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: Are You Addicted to Sitcoms? Blame Biology.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @drderekmead.