Fear not the hipster beard: it too shall pass

If you haven’t been outdoors in a few years, you might not have noticed that beards are back. Back in such a big way that apparently many New York hipsters are paying north of US$8,000 for “facial hair transplants” to embellish their patchy beards.

While the hipster subculture appears to be ground zero for the latest swerve toward beardedness, men who would not be seen dead in skinny jeans or thrift-shop cardigans are letting the whiskers grow in a way that hasn’t been fashionable for decades.

Why are beards sprouting from the unlikeliest faces? And is there anything that might make them stop?

The advantage of rarity

Today in Biology Letters we provide experimental insights into why beard fashions come and go, and why there is no single optimum pattern of facial hair. By we, I mean my former Honours student Zinnia Janif, my colleague and Zinnia’s co-supervisor Dr Barnaby Dixson and me.

We speculated that a phenomenon called “negative frequency dependence” (NFD) might help explain diversity in facial hair patterns. Negative frequency dependence simply means that rare traits enjoy an advantage.

In evolutionary genetics, NFD selection is an important force, favouring rare genetic alleles over more common ones. In guppies, for example, males bearing rare combinations of coloured spots are both less likely to be preyed on and more likely to gain matings in the wild. So a rare colour pattern can spread very rapidly until it becomes so common it attracts attention from predatory fish and starts looking like old hat to female guppies.

A sample of male guppies, caught from Alligator Creek, North Queensland, where they occur ferally. The size and placement of colour spots in male guppies is among the most genetically variable traits yet studied.
Rob Brooks

The selective advantages enjoyed by rare colour patterns explain why guppy colour patterns are among the most genetically variable traits yet studied. Could more subtle forms of NFD selection explain why so much genetic variation persists in most traits, even though natural selection is expected to remove genetic variation by eliminating “bad” genes. Under NFD, “good” or “bad” depends on how common the gene is.

What if, we speculated, rarity also operated in the world of fashion? In this case, what if rare patterns of facial hair enjoy an advantage purely on account of their rarity?

Experiment

To test this idea we set up a simple experiment using a suite of photographs of 36 men. Each man had been photographed when clean-shaven, with five days of growth (we call this light stubble), 10 days of growth (heavy stubble) and at least four weeks of untrimmed growth (full beard).

One subject displaying the four levels of beard: clean shaven, five-day growth, 10-day growth and full beard.
Barnaby Dixson

Subjects, recruited via our research group webpage (where we are always seeking subjects and Facebook – thanks IFLS for the traffic), each rated 36 faces – one of each man. Over the first 24 faces we manipulated the rarity of beard types. Subjects either saw all 24 men clean shaven, all 24 with full beards, or six men from each of the four levels of beardedness.

We then analysed how subjects rated the same – last – 12 pictures comprising three from each beard level. In line with our prediction, when clean-shaven faces were rare (among the early 24 pictures) they enjoyed a significant premium in attractiveness ratings (in the last 12) over when they were common. And when full beards were rare or when the four levels of beardedness were evenly distributed, full beards enjoyed significantly higher attractiveness than when full beards were common. Five- and 10-day stubble did not really vary in attractiveness across the three treatments.

What this means is that, under experimental conditions at least, patterns of facial hair enjoy greater attractiveness when rare than when they are common. Whether this scales to more nuanced judgements in the more complex and varied real world remains to be seen. But it suggests that beard styles are likely to grow less attractive as they become more popular. And that innovative new styles may enjoy a premium while they are still rare.

Fashion and facial hair

Negative frequency dependent choices might well be an important ingredient in changing facial hair fashions. The current fad for facial hair is just the latest development in a long history.

Dwight E. Robinson went to the trouble of scoring the facial grooming of all men pictured in the London Illustrated News between 1842 and 1972. In the 1890s, more than 90% of men pictured had some form of facial hair, a figure that dropped to below 20% by 1970. Sideburns occupied the news in the mid-19th century, whereas full beards reigned from 1870 to 1900, only to be replaced by moustaches.

Negative frequency dependence might play a role early in an establishing fashion.

The New York Times reckons the current beard trend emerged among local hipsters in late 2005. I’m not sure the NYT would notice anything that happened or – heaven forbid – started outside of Manhattan or Brooklyn. But suffice to say the current fashion has been almost a decade in the making.

Noveau-beard has been propelled along the way by various sportsmen, movie stars and musicians. But the fashion has now spread to the point where astute commentators reckon the tide of hipster cool has turned. When Buzzfeed breathlessly lists the “51 Hottest Hollywood Beards”, it’s time to seek higher ground to avoid the tsunami set off by the implosion of cool.

That is one way in which negative frequency dependence can work: when a fashion goes mainstream it loses the advantage of rarity. And so it begins to subside.

“Joaquin Phoenix is a Poser”. Graffiti stencil, New York City.
David Shankbone/ Flickr

Not everybody should grow a beard

Much of this discussion has concerned the attractiveness of beards. But although many hirsute men have formed the zealous conviction that their beards place them at an advantage with the ladies, evidence is far more equivocal.

Dixson’s previous research has shown that heavy stubble – a substantial growth that is well kept – is more attractive than clean shaven, light stubble or a full beard. And individual women vary in their tastes, some are pro, and others vehemently anti-whisker.

Far less ambiguously, beards tend to make those men who can grow them look more masculine. Hardly surprising, actually, given the ability to grow facial hair kicks in during puberty, marking the transition to manhood. The beard might be as much a signal to other men as it is to women, which might explain why so many warrior cultures grew resplendent beards, and why professional sports teams grow beards in playoff-time solidarity.

Female attraction to bearded men can arise due to the manly connotations of facial hair. Nicki Daniels certainly makes this point in her hilarious Open letter to bearded hipsters.

Unfortunately, you guys have turned it into a fashion statement. The beard has turned into the padded bra of masculinity. Sure it looks sexy, but whatcha got under there? There’s a whole generation running around looking like lumberjacks, and most of you can’t change a fucking tire.

If the messages signalled by growing facial hair are diminished when every man-boy over 20 is sporting a beard, that constitutes another way in which negative frequency dependent choice might work.

The reasons beards diminish in value when everyone is wearing them remain to be teased apart, but the fact that they do suggests that the hipster beard, like the handlebar moustache, the mutton chop and countless other fashions before them, will, in time, pass.


“Jimmy Niggles”, grew Australia’s highest-profile contemporary beard to raise awareness about melanoma. Now he’s looking to sell it for A$1million to support cancer research.
Tim Jones

P.S. Beard Season is coming up

You may already have encountered Jimmy Niggles (aka Scott Maggs) and friends who are raising awareness about melanoma – in honour of their mate Wes who lost his life to melanoma at age 26 – through their Beard Season campaign. Jimmy uses his resplendent beard to start conversations with strangers (and leverage considerable media interest) about the importance of having their skin checked. Jimmy is currently selling his beard for A$1 million in order to raise money for melanoma research.

Talk about a positive expression of contemporary masculinity.


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Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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Can monogamy undermine intelligence?

Yes

At least over 100 generations in Drosophila melanogaster vinegar flies.

“Male cognitive performance declines in the absence of sexual selection” proclaim Brian Hollis and Tadeusz Kawecki in the title of a paper out this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

It’s the kind of experiment I love to see done – in somebody else’s lab. Set up some populations (lines) of a fast-breeding animal. Let some lines compete for mates but impose strict life-long monogamy on the other lines. Repeat. Then, a couple of years down the line, if all goes well, measure various traits you predict will be affected by the presence (competition) or absence (monogamy) of sexual selection.

Normally, monogamous lines end up more productive. When there is no advantage to males of jostling for dominance over one another or competing frantically for female attention, the fittest males are usually those that stay alive and don’t harm the females. But in lines where males have to compete with one another, females often end up collateral damage of the robust competition between males and even the chemical warfare between their ejaculates.

But this particular paper looked at male smarts.

Put a male vinegar fly into a vial with one receptive and a few non-receptive females, and he will court them all. How quickly he realises which female he should be courting can be used as a measure of his mating savvy.

No surprises that this measure of smarts declined after 100 generations of enforced monogamy. Each monogamous line male comes from a long line of male flies who never had to decide which female to court.

But it turns out that males from monogamous lines were also much slower to learn to associate a particular smell with the likelihood of their vial being shaken (a nasty thing for a fly to endure). So, it seems there’s some kind of general decline in cognitive performance in those lines where monogamy has been enforced for 100 generations.

Sexual selection for smarts

It’s a pretty neat finding from a purely genetic and evolutionary point of view. That removing the normally hectic competition among males (by enforcing monogamy) to find, court and sometimes coerce female flies leads to the whithering of cognitive performance reveals the role of sexual competition and mate choice in the evolution of cognitive capacity.

Of course the Drosophila study says very little directly about human intelligence. It’s value – apart from the discipline-specific genetic issues it addresses – is the clean experimental evidence it provides that sexual selection can favour the evolution of cognitive performance.

But this evidence cannot help but stir human curiosity. To what extent do we owe our much-celebrated human intelligence to sexual selection?

In The Mating Mind, evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller made the intriguing case that we owe much of human intelligence to the never-ending competition to out-compete our rivals in love and to find, court, keep and even manipulate potential mates. In the past decade or so, support for Miller’s hypothesis has accumulated from a variety of sources.

Does this mean we’re getting dumber?

Ever since Darwin gave us a viable process – natural selection – by which evolution occurs, some thinkers have fretted about whether people are getting dumber. In 2012 I wrote about one such argument in which Stanford geneticist Gerald R. Crabtree lamented that humanity is “almost certainly” losing its superior intellectual and emotional capacities.

Such worries seem to come from a misplaced nostalgia about the purifying nature of natural selection in the past. The idea that back-in-the-day, those of below average intelligence fell victim to lions, wolves or starvation. But modern human institutions, by mollycoddling the intellectually weak, are somehow undermining our collective genetic intelligence.

It’s the kind of argument one might expect to find in a 21st Century tabloid lamenting the rise of the welfare state. But it’s not too far from Plato either.

Coming from exactly this position, Herbert Spencer mangled Darwin’s idea of natural selection into the pithy but hopelessly wrong notion of “survival of the fittest”. When Spencer co-opted natural selection to substantiate laissez-faire capitalism and oppose the “poor laws”, he diminished evolutionary thinking in a way that it has never quite shaken.

Likewise, Francis Galton drew on the work of his cousin – Charles Darwin – to argue that governments protecting the weak and infirm thwart natural selection’s role in improving humanity. In so doing he gave us several important statistical concepts, including correlation, regression to the mean. And he extended it to suggestions for action that initiated modern eugenics, another shameful perversion of evolutionary thinking.

The idea that human intelligence is on a slippery evolutionary slope lubricated by the protections societies provide to their less fortunate or well-endowed citizens has always been a dangerous one. But while Spencerian survival of the fittest doesn’t hold as much cachet as it once did, I am still often asked by well-meaning readers whether an apparent decoupling between intelligence and reproduction is leading us up the evolutionary garden path.

The questioners seem propelled by the same intuition that had people giggling at the band Harvey Danger’s 1997 observation that “only stupid people are breeding”. It’s an impulse that fuels much of the prurient interest in and sneering about shows like Maury or Jersey Shore.

Harvey Danger’s Flagpole Sitta. Relevance? 0:57.

It would be impossible to replicate the Drosophila experiment in humans. Randomly assigning individuals to life-long total monogamy for generation after generation is a fate, once you think of it, far worse than it even sounds. Hopefully the mistakes governments made with eugenics have taken half-baked social engineering programs of this nature off the table.

Modern civilisation has – thank goodness – eliminated many of the ghastly ways in which our ancestors could die. And that has dampened natural selection on survival. But sexual selection is always happening. And much of sexual selection’s power comes from the fact that humans aren’t life-long exclusive monogamists.

People compete for status and wealth with which to attract mates, they do the most outlandish things to get noticed and they engage in the most elaborate forms of persuasion to court and seduce their mates. Either to find somebody to settle down with, or to find another, or another. These are all expressions of intelligence, and while smarts don’t always win out, they usually help.

In fact, Mark Roeder, in his new book Unnatural Selection: Why the Geeks Will Inherit the Earth, argues that the anthropocene has seen intelligence eclipse strength vigour as determinants of success. If that is the case, then sexual selection may well ensure that 100 generations – say 2,500 years – from now, humans will have evolved to be much, much smarter than they are today.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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The selfie, the tummy and the act of war: a dispatch from the battle over female attractiveness and sexuality

When is a selfie a selfie? And when does it become act of war?

Over at mamamia.com, Bec Sparrow has the answer. When the selfie is of six-packing fitness-blogging Norwegian Caroline Berg Eriksen posing in tiny underwear four days after giving birth, it’s an act of war.

Caroline Berg Eriksen’s infamous selfie, posted four short days post-partum. Instagram
Caroline Berg Eriksen’s infamous selfie, posted four short days post-partum. Instagram

Sparrow recognises the hostile intent behind Eriksen’s Instagram posting. What she does not seem to recognise quite as clearly is that her exasperated article is another act in the same war. And that for all their salvos against body-image stereotypes and everything having to be sexy, sites like mamamia.com are part of the fight they claim to be trying to end. A war in which women are the main combatants and the principal casualties.

Much thinking about sexism and the judgments people make about women’s bodies implicates men and the male gaze. Women are objectified by men who desire them, or by women who seek to emulate them and, in turn, be desired.

Challenging men’s behaviour has helped break down objectification. But the very real oppression many women feel in the face of wall-to-wall sexy images and – especially – improbably skinny actresses, celebrities and models remains. Some even claim it is getting worse.

Perhaps we need a transfusion of new ideas to help make sense of the mess? You may not be surprised to learn that I think I know just where to go: evolutionary biology.

Choice and competition

Evolutionary biologists study, among other things, how sexy traits evolve by a process called sexual selection. That’s just a form of natural selection in which traits that give an individual a mating advantage tend to be retained and embellished. Why? Because those individuals who enjoy mating advantages become the parents of the next generation, bequeathing their sexy genes to their offspring.

Sexual selection happens in either of two ways: members of one sex choosing among members of the other, or members of one sex competing with one another. Biologists have long tended to concentrate on competition among males (think of antelope clashing with their horns) and of females choosing the most decorative males (think dowdy bird-of-paradise hens being wooed by the most extravagantly plumed cock).

The study of human mate choice has also paid much more attention to competitive males and choosy females than the reverse. Although we’ve known for some time that both women and men choose their mates, and that women also compete with one another for good mates and for resources.

Competition among women is enjoying a surge of attention right now. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London recently hosted a special issue on female competition and aggression, with some of the highlights profiled in the New York Times. And The Atlantic got involved too, with a piece provocatively titled The Evolution of Bitchiness.

According to the New York Times article:

Now that researchers have been looking more closely, they say that this “intrasexual competition” is the most important factor explaining the pressures that young women feel to meet standards of sexual conduct and physical appearance.

Perhaps the most important development in this area comes from psychologist Roy Baumeister and an assortment of his collaborators who have pushed a body of ideas they call “sexual economics”. Pregnancy, menstruation and menopause mean that most women spend fewer days (across their lifetimes) willing and able to engage in sex than most men do. As a result, at any time there are more men than women participating in the “market place”. As a result, sex becomes by-and-large a commodity supplied by women and demanded by men.

Likewise, in most societies men have more access to the resources families use to raise their children. The truer this is, the more incentive women have to control the supply of sex, and to exchange it for male-controlled resources. Women get the best “price” for sex when they restrict supply. Which is why, Baumeister and his collaborator Jean Twenge argue that women, rather than men, are the main culprits when it comes to suppressing female sexuality. They marshall much circumstantial evidence that women drive those customs that keep other women from behaving promiscuously, from slut-shaming, to criticising other women’s bodies and dress-sense, to female genital mutilation.

I can never bring myself to trust black-and-white answers to tricky social and political questions. I’ve considered Baumeister and Twenge’s paper at some length, and their argument is convincing. But I’m also dubious that the entire blame for suppressing female sexuality and judgments of women’s appearances can be shifted from men to women. The key idea that new evolutionary and economic thinking has brought to the study of cultural phenomena like the suppression of female sexuality and the incentives to appear attractive is that female-female competition is an important and long-ignored piece of the puzzle.

And my regular peeks at Mamamia.com convince me that columnists like Bec Sparrow and Mia Freedman are far from passive correspondents in the war over women’s bodies and their sexualities. They are combatants.

Madonna-bloggers and whores

Bec Sparrow’s outrage over the 4-days postpartum selfie was, in my opinion, raw and righteous. Carrying a baby to term and giving birth imposes profound demands on a mother’s body. The last thing any new mother needs, amid a fog of sleep-deprivation, isolation, mastitis and post-natal depression is the sense that returning to her pre-baby size and shape should be first thing on her to-do list.

Sparrow has a point when she fumes “I’m beginning to feel like women posting post-labour photos of themselves is the equivalent of men flopping out their johnsons to see whose is the biggest”. Only I don’t know many men who do that.

But I get the metaphor.

Bec Sparrow would rather know how the new mother is feeling:

Are you coping okay? How are you feeling about being a mum? How are you feeling about your new baby? Connected? Disconnected? Nothing? Are you feeling traumatised about your labour? Did you end up with or choose to have a cesar (sic)? Has your milk come in? Having breastfeeding issues? Wanting to bottle feed but feeling alone? Wanting to cry all the time for no particular reason?

But then I’m not so sure that her readers would find that quite as fascinating. In fact, “minor web celebrity discusses how she feels post-partum” doesn’t make much of a story now, does it?

What does get under the skin of Mamamia readers – a very maternal demographic – is a piece fulminating over how sexy post-baby pictures, be they in glossy magazines or on Instagram, are a sign of all that is wrong in the world. Even better if, at the same time, those articles implicitly criticise the flat-bellied subject’s maternal skills.

Sparrow’s Eriksen piece reminded me of an article by Mamamia publisher Mia Freedman herself, not six weeks ago, criticising a selfie by an altogether more famous new mum. With Kim Kardashian: Are you a mother or a porn star?, Mia joined the on-line rush for the slut-shaming cover of the Madonna-whore dichotomy. Either you’re a good mommy or the shameless strumpet who got famous because of a strategic sex-tape.

The Kim Kardashian selfie that got the Internet and Mia Freedman all animated. Source: Instagram
The Kim Kardashian selfie that got the Internet and Mia Freedman all animated. Source: Instagram

You won’t get a defence of the sisters Kardashian from me. And yet I wonder about the purpose of outrage at those women whose career trajectory has been propelled by sexy images when they dare to try regain that trajectory instead of (or as well as) joining a play-group. Is this kind of story likely to affirm readers who are grappling with the challenges of motherhood? Will it genuinely dampen the intensity of competition among women to be sexy?

What if the outrage at mothers who have the temerity to flaunt their sexiness is a symptom of sexual competition itself? Make it impossible to reconcile sexy and “new mother” and you’ll never have to feel inferior at mother’s group again.

Glamour magazines and websites seem awfully preoccupied with “having it all”. They gush about celebrity couples too surgically enhanced and PR-airbrushed to ever be attainable role models, about those couples’ massive engagement rings, faux-mantic proposals and awkwardly-named babies. Mamamia.com hardly opted out of the psuedo-news of one Kim Kardashian’s engagement to one Kanye West.

Nearly everything in a magazine like Cleo or Cosmo, or a website like Mamamia.com fuels the competition among women: to be hot, to be thin, to be well-dressed, to keep an impeccable home, to succeed in a career, to marry a man wealthier and more successful than yourself and – the cherry on the top – to be an unimpeachable mother.

That is not to engage in the hollow pursuit of media-blaming. The acts of war by Mesdames Eriksen and Kardashian were self-published social media shots. And the thousands of individuals, mostly women, who retweeted or commented on the pictures committed small foot-soldierly acts of war too. As did the many columnists, including Sparrow and Freedman, and their commenters in turn. The competition among women to make the best life for themselves, with male (and female) partners and colleagues who value looks, and wealth and success is not going to disappear any time soon.

Rhapsodising about fairytale engagements, red-carpet gowns, bikini bodies, perfect mommies and the like only creates the ecosystem in which the 4-day-post-baby-selfie can thrive. And so, when a mother tries to be the woman she was – be it by flaunting her sexiness or returning to her career – there seem to be legions of other mothers willing to block her path to the mythical land of having-it-all.

It’s not my place to take sides here*. From where I view it, evolved urges to compete with sexual rivals operate mostly beneath any deliberate intent. But they can be stoked or doused. And publishers – especially ones who want to opt out of harmful stereotyping – should be aware of which one they are doing.

Rob Brooks does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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