Ears, palms, toes, neck, and nose. In that order.
These are the grossest places for humans to have hair, according to Queen’s students. Ok, there were a few others that I didn’t mention. The upper lip, however, did not receive a single vote.
Last fall a number of men in the biology department grew competitive mustaches for “Movember” prostate cancer research fundraising. This required mass beard shaving on the first of November. Martin Mallet, known for his thick coat of fur, emphatic hand gestures and all-around intensity, suddenly transformed into a meek imposter. For the first time Martin had no probing questions for the speaker at the EEB seminar. I can’t help but wonder: if he did, would anyone have noticed?
I started to recognize Martin again when the hair on his upper lip attained visibility. Other men of Movember fared less well. It can’t be a good thing when the people who work in the same office as you don’t even notice your new, mustachioed face.
But what, if anything, is it for? My experience suggests that human facial hair serves as a male status signal. Is this why we evolved mustaches in the first place?
Why do mustaches evolve? Inca tern, from Wikimedia Commons.
In class the other week we discussed Stephen Jay Gould and the trouble with adaptationism. Gould famously criticized the proliferation of sloppy adaptive reasoning in his 1979 paper “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm“1. He took aim at scientists who apply adaptive “story-telling” to nearly anything – from the colour of our skin to the size of our noses – in an unverifiable, unfalsifiable way.
It can be easy to jump on the adaptationist bandwagon, since these stories are often quite plausible. This may have been especially true when “Spandrels” was written, due to the rise of some revolutionary ideas about how to apply evolutionary biology to the study of social behaviour. There was plenty of new research to be done. Of course, many of the people doing this research disagreed with Gould’s characterization2. At its worst, adaptationist thinking might lead to some bad science, especially when it comes to human behaviour (where confounds are especially hard to control). But speculation is a necessary part of the scientific method, and adaptive reasoning can be a good place to start.
It is worth noting that Gould’s paper has been enormously influential. “Spandrels” has been cited well over 3500 times. I’m still waiting on citation number 3 for my Master’s research.
And yet, the response of the research community to the “Spandrels” critique has largely been, “That’s well said, but let’s get back to our field work.”2 In that spirit, consider the mustache. Can we speculate about it in a reasonable way, avoiding the big adaptationist pitfalls?
First of all, is this question worth asking?