Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Survival of the Sexiest


Credit: iordani/Adobe

By Barnaby Dixson & Monica Awasthy

“Survival of the fittest” never applied to beards, so why did they evolve and what role do they play in mate selection in modern society?

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Facial hair has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Beards are definitely “in”, and men go to great lengths to groom and maintain them. In fact, the male grooming industry is estimated at US$15 billion globally.

But why do beards exist in the first place, and how do biology and culture interplay to shape their meaning as an animal signal?

The Beard as a Badge of Status

Mention the word “evolution” and most people will instantly think about natural selection and survival of the fittest. When we think about the physical traits that were important for ancestral survival, we imagine men who were physically strong hunters who ran fast and provided for their families. Now add to this image a beard and we have the quintessential caveman.

Yet beards don’t make you a better hunter, they don’t make you stronger and they certainly don’t make you faster. So if beards didn’t evolve to help us survive, what are they for?

Beards are an important signal of maleness. They first emerge at puberty with the expression of male sex hormones such as testosterone. Beards are only fully developed by young adulthood, slowly emerging in a pattern from the upper lip down to the chin, and eventually connecting to the sides of the jaw.

This occurs precisely at a time when men become interested in attracting a partner, but are doing so in...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.