The Evolutionary Reason for Beards – a Hairy Shock Absorber
A new study has provided an evolutionary reason for beards - to reduce the impact of punches. This explains why men grow facial hair while most women do not. But before we begin, if the findings of this new scientific study are correct, we now know why Connor MacGregor, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweight and lightweight champion, took so many blows to the chin and went on to destroy almost everyone who stepped into the ring with him. Was his secret weapon his beard?
Beards, Evolution’s Hairy Shock Absorber
At the top of the list of “sexual dimorphisms”, which describe the most predominant physical differences between human males and females, is facial hair. But until now scientists have been at a loss trying to determine the evolutionary reason for beards. Many previous researchers assumed the purpose was to enhance sexual attractiveness, but a new study by University of Utah researchers has found the main evolutionary benefit of a man’s beard is to “soften the impact of a punch.”
Ancient Greek boxers. (CC BY 2.5 ) Did evolution give them beards to help them fight better?
Published in the journal Integrative Organismal Biology by lead researcher Professor David Carrier of the University of Utah, the new study is the culmination of several research projects by the same University of Utah team looking at “human resilience.” The scientists set out to test whether beards provided protection from punches, “in a sustained melee,” and if so, to what degree did facial hair soften blows?
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A Daily Mail report says researchers in the US found that the “weakest man punches harder than the strongest woman,“ and that men’s average power during a punching motion test was “162 per cent greater than females.” According to a report in the New York Post, the new study is a dramatic example of sexual dimorphism that's consistent with males becoming more specialized for fighting and males fighting in a particular way, “which is throwing punches.”
Gallo-Roman Mosaic Floor depicting a boxing scene between Entellus and Dares from Virgil's ‘Aeneid’. (Mary Harrsch/CC BY 2.0)
The findings suggest men evolved strong punching arms for winning fist fights with other males when competing for sexual partners and that over the millennia weaker men who were unable to win fights have been selected out of the human gene pool. This means modern males (especially MacGregor) are more able on average to perform in hand-to-hand conflict. The result of this evolutionary twist means male humans became harder punchers than females.
Samson Slays a Thousand Men, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. (Public Domain)
The experimentation included modeling analogue human jaws made from epoxy resin covered with sheep skin, before various layers of facial hair were applied - from trimmed and fully-grown beards to no hair whatsoever. Researchers produced 20 of each jaw type and fixed them on anvils before a “4.7 kilogram (10.3lbs) metal weight was dropped onto each one. The scientists said the experiment would have been improved if actual human skin with facial hair still in place had been used, but for obvious reasons they noted “this was not practical.”
The Evolutionary Reason Why a Beard Can be a Secret Shield
Measuring the force traveling through each of the jaws as they were pummeled by the dropping weights, a detection machine measured precisely how much force went through, and was absorbed by, each jaw bone. It was discovered that the jaw samples with full and partial facial hair patterns were capable of absorbing more energy than "plucked and sheared samples.” The total energy absorbed by the jaw with full facial hair was a massive “37 per cent greater in the furred compared to the plucked samples.”
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Explaining the evolutionary reason why this happens, the researchers say impacts (punches) are “spread out by the bushy facial hair.” The results indicate beards significantly reduce the force of impact from blunt objects and hair “absorbs energy, thereby reducing the incidence of failure.” This means having a full beard can greatly help protect the jaw from damaging, life threatening blows, bringing me back to my original question with regards to Connor MacGregor, Ireland’s hairy destroyer.
Knowing what we now know about the force absorption properties of the beard, perhaps it would be fairer if all pro-fighters shaved before scrapping to level the playing field. We would undoubtedly see a number of “Samsons” who lose all their power when losing their hair.
Top Image: Scientists have found the evolutionary reason for beards. Source: be free / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie