Once Were Hairy

Aesthetically, humans are somewhat standout from the rest of natural creation. We are multicellular organisms, instantly making us completely different to the vast majority of the species’ currently on earth today, and warm-blooded, differentiating us from every plant, fungi, invertebrate, fish, amphibian and reptile. We stand on two legs, but at the same time cannot fly, differentiating us from almost every species of bird and mammal. But this is only so much basic classification; the one trait that aesthetically differentiates from nearly all of these is our hairlessness. Brian May excepted.

Technically, there are other members of the order mammalia who go without fur; the simultaneously cute and horrifying naked mole rat is but one land-borne example, and no swimming mammal (whales, dolphins etc.) have fur. And yes, we technically do have a full layer of fur covering us, meaning that you have more hairs (in terms of number, rather than volume) than a chimpanzee- but our hairy covering is so small as to be practically not there, and the amount of insulation and protection that it provides is minimal. Across most of our body, the only natural protection we have against our enemies and the elements is our bare skin.

Exactly why this is the case is somewhat unclear, because fur is very useful stuff. It offers a surprising degree of protection against cuts and attacks, and is just as effective at keeping out the elements, be they cold, wind or rain. Length can and does vary widely depending on location and need, and many species (including some humans) have incorporated their fur as a form of bodily decoration to attract mates and intimidate rivals; the lion’s mane is the most obvious example.

Also confusing is why we have hair where we do; upon our heads and around the pubic regions. It is thought that hair on the head may be either an almost vestigial thing, left over from the days when our ancestors did have hair, although this theory doesn’t explain why it remained on our head. Better explanations include the slight degree of extra shielding it provides to our brain, our greatest evolutionary advantage, or because the obviousness of the head makes it a natural point for us to rig our hair into elaborate, ceremonial styles and headdresses, raising the social standing of those who are able to get away with such things and helping them attract a mate and further their genes. However, the pubic region is of particular interest to evolutionary biologists, in part because hair there seems counter-productive; the body keeps the testicles outside the body because they need to be kept slightly cooler than the body’s interior temperature in order to keep sperm count high and ensure fertility (an interesting side effect of which is that people who take regular hot baths tend to have a lower sperm count). Surrounding such an area with hair seems evolutionarily dumb, reducing our fertility and reducing our chances of passing our genes onto the next generation. It is however thought that hair around these regions may aid the release of sexual pheremones, helping us to attract a mate, or that it may have helped to reduce chafing during sex and that women tended to choose men with pubic hair (and vice versa) to make sex comfortable. This is an example of sexual selection, where evolution is powered by our sexual preferences rather than environmental necessity, and this itself has been suggested as a theory as to why we humans lost our hair in the first place, or at least stayed that way once we lost it; we just found it more attractive that way. This theory was proposed by Charles Darwin, which seems odd given the truly magnificent beard he wore. However, the ‘chafing’ theory regarding pubic hair is rather heavily disputed from a number of angles, among them the fact that many couples choose to shave their pubic region in order to enhance sexual satisfaction. Our preferences could, of course, have changed over time.

One of the more bizarre theories concerning human hairlessness is the ‘aquatic apes’ theory; it is well known that all swimming mammals, from river dolphins to sea lions, favour fat (or ‘blubber’) in place of fur as it is more streamlined and efficient for swimming and is better for warmth underwater. Therefore, some scientists have suggested that humans went through a period of evolution where we adopted a semi-aquatic lifestyle, fishing in shallow waters and making our homes in and around the water. They also point to the slight webbing effect between our fingers as evidence of a change that was just starting to happen before we left our waterborne lifestyle, and to humanity’s ability to swim (I am told that if a newborn baby falls into water he will not sink but will instinctively ‘swim’, an ability we lose once we become toddlers and must re-learn later, but I feel it may be inappropriate to test this theory out). However, there is no evidence for these aquatic apes, so most scientists feel we should look elsewhere.

Others have suggested that the reason may have been lice; one only needs to hear the horror stories of the First World War to know of the horrible-ness of a lice infestation, and such parasites are frequently the vectors for virulent diseases that can wipe out a population with ease. Many animals spend the majority of their time picking through their fur to remove them (in other apes this is a crucial part of social bonding), but if we have no fur then the business becomes infinitely simpler because we can actually see the lice. Once again, adherents point to sexual selection- without hair we can display our untarnished, healthy, parasite-free skin to the world and our prospective mates (along with any impressive scars we want to show off), allowing them to know they are choosing a healthy partner, and this may go some way to explaining why the ultimate expression of male bodily beauty is considered a strong, hairless chest and six-pack, symbolising both strength and health. Ironically, a loss of fur and our subsequent use of clothes developed an entire new species; the body louse lives only within the folds of our clothes, and was thought to have evolved from hair lice some 50,000 years ago (interestingly, over a million years passed between our African ancestors passing through the hairless phase and our use of clothes, during which time we diverged as a species from Neanderthals, discovered tools and lived through an Ice Age. Must have been chilly, even in Africa). It’s a nice theory, but one considered redundant by some in the face of another; homeostasis.

Apart from our brainpower, homeostasis (or the ability to regulate our body temperature) is humanity’s greatest evolutionary advantage; warm blooded mammals are naturally adept at it anyway, giving us the ability to hunt & forage in all weathers, times and climates, and in cold weather fur provides a natural advantage in this regard. However, without fur to slow the process of heat regulation (sweating, dilation of blood vessels and such all become less effective when insulated by fur) human beings are able to maintain an ambient bodily temperature almost regardless of the weather or climate. African tribesmen have been known to run through the bush for an hour straight and raise their body temperature by less than a degree, whilst our ability to regulate heat in colder climates was enough for scores of Ice Age-era human bones to be found across the then-freezing Europe. Our ability to regulate temperature surpasses even those other ‘naked’ land mammals, the elephant and rhinoceros, thanks to our prominent nose and extremities that allow us to control heat even more precisely. In short, we’re not 100% sure exactly why we humans evolved to be hairless, but it has proved a surprisingly useful trait.

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Fitting in

This is my third post in this little mini-series on the subject of sex & sexuality in general, and this time I would like to focus on the place that sex has in our society. I mean, on the face of it, we as a culture appear to be genuinely embarrassed by its existence a lot of the time, rarely being referred to explicitly if at all (at least certainly not among ‘correct’ and polite company), and making any mention of it a cause of scandal and embarrassment. Indeed, an entire subset of language has seemed to develop over the last few years to try and enable us to talk about sexually-related things without ever actually making explicit references to it- it’s an entire area where you just don’t go in conversation. It’s almost as if polite society has the mental age of a 13 year old in this regard, and is genuinely embarrassed as to its existence.

Compare this to the societal structure of one of our closest relatives, the ‘pygmy great ape’ called the bonobo. Bonobos adopt a matriarchal (female-led) society, are entirely bisexual, and for them sex is a huge part of their social system. If a pair of bonobos are confronted with any new and unusual situation, be it merely the introduction of a cardboard box, their immediate response will be to briefly start having sex with one another almost to act as an icebreaker, before they go and investigate whatever it was that excited them. Compared to bonobos, humans appear to be acting like a bunch of nuns.

And this we must contrast against the fact that sex is something that we are not only designed for but that we actively seek and enjoy. Sigmund Freud is famous for claiming that most of human behaviour can be put down to the desire for sex, and as I have explained in previous place, it makes evolutionary sense for us to both enjoy sex and seek it wherever we can. It’s a fact of life, something very few of us would be comfortable to do without, and something our children are going to have to come to terms with eventually- yet it’s something that culture seems determined to brush under the carpet, and that children are continually kept away from for as long as is physically possible in a last-ditch attempt to protect whatever innocence they have left. So why is this?

Part of the reasoning behind this would be the connection between sex and nakedness, as well as the connection to privacy. Human beings do not, obviously, have thick fur to protect themselves or keep them warm (nobody knows exactly why we lost ours, but it’s probably to do with helping to regulate temperature, which we humans do very well), and as such clothes are a great advantage to us. They can shade us when its warm and allow for more efficient cooling, protect us from harsh dust, wind & weather, keep us warm when we venture into the world’s colder climates, help stem blood flow and lessen the effect of injuries, protect us against attack from predators or one another, help keep us a little cleaner and replace elaborate fur & feathers for all manner of ceremonial rituals. However, they also carry a great psychological value, placing a barrier between our bodies and the rest of the world, and thus giving us a sense of personal privacy about our own bodies. Of particular interest to our privacy are those areas most commonly covered, including (among other things), the genital areas, which must be exposed for sexual activity. This turns sex into a private, personal act in our collective psyche, something to be shared only between the partners involved, and making any exploration of it seem like an invasion of our personal privacy. In effect, then, it would seem the Bible got it the wrong way around- it was clothes that gave us the knowledge and shame of nakedness, and thus the ‘shame’ of sex.

Then we must consider the social importance of sex & its consequences in our society generally. For centuries the entire governmental structure of most of the world was based around who was whose son, who was married to who  and, in various roundabout ways, who either had, was having, or could in the future be having, sex with whom. Even nowadays the due process of law usually means inheritance by either next of kin, spouse or partner, and so the consequences of sex carry immense weight. Even in the modern world, with the invention of contraceptives and abortion and the increasing prevalence of ‘casual sex’, sex itself carries immense societal weight, often determining how you are judged by your peers, your ‘history’ among them and your general social standing. To quote a favourite song of a friend of mine: ‘The whole damn world is just as obsessed/ With who’s the best dressed and who’s having sex’. And so, sex becomes this huge social thing, its pursuit full of little rules and nuances, all about who with who (and even with the where & how among some social groups) and it is simply not allowed to become ‘just this thing everyone does’ like it is with the bonobos. Thus, everything associated with sex & sexuality becomes highly strung and almost political in nature, making it a semi-taboo to talk about for fear of offending someone.

Finally, we must consider the development of the ‘sexual subculture’ that seems to run completely counter to this taboo attitude. For most of human history we have comfortably accepted and even encouraged the existence of brothels and prostitution, and whilst this has become very much frowned upon in today’s culture the position has been filled by strip clubs, lap dancing bars and the sheer mountains of pornography that fill the half-hidden corners of newsagents, small ads and the internet. This is almost a reaction to the rather more prim aloofness adopted by polite society, an acknowledgement and embracing of our enjoyment of sex (albeit one that caters almost exclusively to heterosexual men and has a dubious record for both women’s and, in places, human rights). But because this is almost a direct response to the attitudes of polite culture, it has naturally attracted connotations of being seedy and not respectable. Hundreds of men may visit strip clubs every night, but that doesn’t make it an OK career move for a prominent judge to be photographed walking out of one. Thus, as this sex-obsessed underworld has come into being on the wrong side of the public eye, so sex itself has attracted the same negative connotations, the same sense of lacking in respectability, among the ‘proper’ echelons of society, and has gone even more into the realms of ‘Do Not Discuss’.

But, you might say, sex appears to be getting even more prevalent in the modern age. You’ve mentioned internet porn, but what about the sexualisation of the media, the creation and use of sex symbols, the targeting of sexual content at a steadily younger audience? Good question, and one I’ll give a shot at answering next time…