It’s hard to go anywhere in certain parts of London without seeing man after man with a face full of fuzz. Beards are undoubtedly trendy at the moment and have branched out from their hipster niche into something more approaching the mainstream.
What are those beards saying about us as men though? A recent paper suggests that the growth in beard popularity could be a response to the amount of competition we, as men, face in life. It suggests that the more competition we have to face, the more flamboyant we get in response to the rivalry.
At least, that was the case when the researchers studied the matter in primate communities.
The study, which was published in the Evolution and Human Behavior journal, saw the research team test their hypothesis that in large and complex societies, males use ostentatious badges or ornaments to enable them to stand out.
In primate communities, these include elaborate cheek flanges amongst orangutans, the red chests of geladas, the elongated noses found on proboscis monkeys, or big, bushy beards on human beings.
Suffice to say, the majority of these badges are designed to enhance the sexual attractiveness of the male to the females in their community. That isn’t their only reason for being, however, with the study suggesting that an even bigger factor is the competition between males in the tribe.
For instance, among human communities, the researchers suggest that men with beards could be perceived as being both more aggressive and indeed dominant than their rivals that are not sporting a beard. Of course, this power might also have certain aphrodisiac like qualities in attracting women too.
When the researchers analysed over 150 primate species, they found that the most conspicuous badges on males were evident in communities where both physical and social conflict were commonplace, with limited scope for individual recognition.
The flamboyant and elaborate badges were useful, therefore, in large and complex communities where male members hoped to signal their rank, identity, dominance and also attractiveness.
When the communities were much smaller, however, the males of the tribe had much less need for such elaborate badges, and status within the group was determined by the more frequent social interactions between the animals.
"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," the researchers say. "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."
So does this apply equally to men? The authors propose that the popularity of beards and moustaches amongst men in Britain between 1842 and 1971 was a response to the greater number of men in society at that time, so more was required to stand out.
Does the same apply today? Are beard wearers simply trying to stand out from the crowd? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.