Australian researchers have been at the forefront of decoding a truly puzzling social phenomenon – why do so many men have a beard these days?
From George Clooney to Jon Hamm to the dapper gent who makes your coffee every morning, beards have, well, sprouted, just about everywhere.
According to researchers at the University of Western Australia, men start growing beards when they notice other men – competitors – growing one in what becomes an alpha male hair-off. According to the study, published in the Evolution and Human Behaviour journal, the researchers looked at 154 species of male primates in big societies and noted that they wear ‘badges’ that outwardly show their sexual attractiveness over fellow males. In orangutans this is shown in cheek flanges, snub noses on monkeys and, you guessed it, beards on humans. According to the researchers, the more males in a society, the more competitive the badges – or epic facial hair -get.
“When you live in a small group where everyone knows everyone because of repeated interactions, there is no need to signal quality and competitiveness via ornaments,” said Dr Cyril Grueter, who led the research.
“In large groups where individuals are surrounded by strangers, we need a quick reliable tool to evaluate someone’s strength and quality, and that’s where these elaborate ornaments come in.
“In the case of humans, this may also include phenotypic extensions such as body decoration, jewellery and prestige items,” he said.
In a previous study along the same kind of lines by Sydney scientists, the popularity of beards came down to Darwinian selection – the more beards there are, the less attractive they become. When we reach “peak beard” the pendulum will swing back the (clean shaven) way.
Researchers have also suggested that factors such as economy, lifestyle and culture have a marked impact on when beards dip in and out of fashion.
“I think one of the reasons beards have made a comeback now is that it’s a difficult time,” said Professor Rob Brooks from the University of New South Wales, how led the study.
“Young men are competing to attract someone when work is not easy to come by. So we might expect some aspects [of masculinity] to get turned up to eleven.
“After the Wall Street Crash in the 1920s there is some circumstantial evidence that beards got big again. So maybe economic conditions have set the stage for the recent comeback in beardedness.”
So it seems that Ned Kelly bushranger beard sported by your nephew might be a telling barometer of the times we live in.