The Descent of Man – Day 145 of 151

Absence of Hair on the Body, and Its Development on the Face and Head

From the presence of the woolly hair or lanugo on the human foetus, and of rudimentary hairs scattered over the body during maturity, we may infer that man is descended from some animal which was born hairy and remained so during life. The loss of hair is an inconvenience and probably an injury to man, even in a hot climate, for he is thus exposed to the scorching of the sun, and to sudden chills, especially during wet weather. As Mr. Wallace remarks, the natives in all countries are glad to protect their naked backs and shoulders with some slight covering. No one supposes that the nakedness of the skin is any direct advantage to man; his body therefore cannot have been divested of hair through natural selection. (21. ‘Contributions to the Theory of Natural Selection,’ 1870, p. 346. Mr. Wallace believes (p. 350) “that some intelligent power has guided or determined the development of man”; and he considers the hairless condition of the skin as coming under this head. The Rev. T.R. Stebbing, in commenting on this view (‘Transactions of Devonshire Association for Science,’ 1870) remarks, that had Mr. Wallace “employed his usual ingenuity on the question of man’s hairless skin, he might have seen the possibility of its selection through its superior beauty or the health attaching to superior cleanliness.”) Nor, as shewn in a former chapter, have we any evidence that this can be due to the direct action of climate, or that it is the result of correlated development.

The absence of hair on the body is to a certain extent a secondary sexual character; for in all parts of the world women are less hairy than men. Therefore we may reasonably suspect that this character has been gained through sexual selection. We know that the faces of several species of monkeys, and large surfaces at the posterior end of the body of other species, have been denuded of hair; and this we may safely attribute to sexual selection, for these surfaces are not only vividly coloured, but sometimes, as with the male mandrill and female rhesus, much more vividly in the one sex than in the other, especially during the breeding-season. I am informed by Mr. Bartlett that, as these animals gradually reach maturity, the naked surfaces grow larger compared with the size of their bodies. The hair, however, appears to have been removed, not for the sake of nudity, but that the colour of the skin may be more fully displayed. So again with many birds, it appears as if the head and neck had been divested of feathers through sexual selection, to exhibit the brightly-coloured skin.

As the body in woman is less hairy than in man, and as this character is common to all races, we may conclude that it was our female semi-human ancestors who were first divested of hair, and that this occurred at an extremely remote period before the several races had diverged from a common stock. Whilst our female ancestors were gradually acquiring this new character of nudity, they must have transmitted it almost equally to their offspring of both sexes whilst young; so that its transmission, as with the ornaments of many mammals and birds, has not been limited either by sex or age. There is nothing surprising in a partial loss of hair having been esteemed as an ornament by our ape-like progenitors, for we have seen that innumerable strange characters have been thus esteemed by animals of all kinds, and have consequently been gained through sexual selection. Nor is it surprising that a slightly injurious character should have been thus acquired; for we know that this is the case with the plumes of certain birds, and with the horns of certain stags.

The females of some of the anthropoid apes, as stated in a former chapter, are somewhat less hairy on the under surface than the males; and here we have what might have afforded a commencement for the process of denudation. With respect to the completion of the process through sexual selection, it is well to bear in mind the New Zealand proverb, “There is no woman for a hairy man.” All who have seen photographs of the Siamese hairy family will admit how ludicrously hideous is the opposite extreme of excessive hairiness. And the king of Siam had to bribe a man to marry the first hairy woman in the family; and she transmitted this character to her young offspring of both sexes. (22. The ‘Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication,’ vol. ii. 1868, p. 237.)

Some races are much more hairy than others, especially the males; but it must not be assumed that the more hairy races, such as the European, have retained their primordial condition more completely than the naked races, such as the Kalmucks or Americans. It is more probable that the hairiness of the former is due to partial reversion; for characters which have been at some former period long inherited are always apt to return. We have seen that idiots are often very hairy, and they are apt to revert in other characters to a lower animal type. It does not appear that a cold climate has been influential in leading to this kind of reversion; excepting perhaps with the negroes, who have been reared during several generations in the United States (23. ‘Investigations into Military and Anthropological Statistics of American Soldiers,’ by B.A. Gould, 1869, p. 568:–Observations were carefully made on the hairiness of 2129 black and coloured soldiers, whilst they were bathing; and by looking to the published table, “it is manifest at a glance that there is but little, if any, difference between the white and the black races in this respect.” It is, however, certain that negroes in their native and much hotter land of Africa, have remarkably smooth bodies. It should be particularly observed, that both pure blacks and mulattoes were included in the above enumeration; and this is an unfortunate circumstance, as in accordance with a principle, the truth of which I have elsewhere proved, crossed races of man would be eminently liable to revert to the primordial hairy character of their early ape-like progenitors.), and possibly with the Ainos, who inhabit the northern islands of the Japan archipelago. But the laws of inheritance are so complex that we can seldom understand their action. If the greater hairiness of certain races be the result of reversion, unchecked by any form of selection, its extreme variability, even within the limits of the same race, ceases to be remarkable. (24. Hardly any view advanced in this work has met with so much disfavour (see for instance, Sprengel, ‘Die Fortschritte des Darwinismus,’ 1874, p. 80) as the above explanation of the loss of hair in mankind through sexual selection; but none of the opposed arguments seem to me of much weight, in comparison with the facts shewing that the nudity of the skin is to a certain extent a secondary sexual character in man and in some of the Quadrumana.)

With respect to the beard in man, if we turn to our best guide, the Quadrumana, we find beards equally developed in both sexes of many species, but in some, either confined to the males, or more developed in them than in the females. From this fact and from the curious arrangement, as well as the bright colours of the hair about the heads of many monkeys, it is highly probable, as before explained, that the males first acquired their beards through sexual selection as an ornament, transmitting them in most cases, equally or nearly so, to their offspring of both sexes. We know from Eschricht (25. ‘Ueber die Richtung der Haare am Menschlichen Korper,’ in Muller’s ‘Archiv. fur Anat. und Phys.’ 1837, s. 40.) that with mankind the female as well as the male foetus is furnished with much hair on the face, especially round the mouth; and this indicates that we are descended from progenitors of whom both sexes were bearded. It appears therefore at first sight probable that man has retained his beard from a very early period, whilst woman lost her beard at the same time that her body became almost completely divested of hair. Even the colour of our beards seems to have been inherited from an ape-like progenitor; for when there is any difference in tint between the hair of the head and the beard, the latter is lighter coloured in all monkeys and in man. In those Quadrumana in which the male has a larger beard than that of the female, it is fully developed only at maturity, just as with mankind; and it is possible that only the later stages of development have been retained by man. In opposition to this view of the retention of the beard from an early period is the fact of its great variability in different races, and even within the same race; for this indicates reversion,–long lost characters being very apt to vary on re-appearance.

Nor must we overlook the part which sexual selection may have played in later times; for we know that with savages the men of the beardless races take infinite pains in eradicating every hair from their faces as something odious, whilst the men of the bearded races feel the greatest pride in their beards. The women, no doubt, participate in these feelings, and if so sexual selection can hardly have failed to have effected something in the course of later times. It is also possible that the long-continued habit of eradicating the hair may have produced an inherited effect. Dr. Brown-Sequard has shewn that if certain animals are operated on in a particular manner, their offspring are affected. Further evidence could be given of the inheritance of the effects of mutilations; but a fact lately ascertained by Mr. Salvin (26. On the tail-feathers of Motmots, ‘Proceedings of the Zoological Society,’ 1873, p. 429.) has a more direct bearing on the present question; for he has shewn that the motmots, which are known habitually to bite off the barbs of the two central tail-feathers, have the barbs of these feathers naturally somewhat reduced. (27. Mr. Sproat has suggested (‘Scenes and Studies of Savage Life,’ 1868, p. 25) this same view. Some distinguished ethnologists, amongst others M. Gosse of Geneva, believe that artificial modifications of the skull tend to be inherited.) Nevertheless, with mankind the habit of eradicating the beard and the hairs on the body would probably not have arisen until these had already become by some means reduced.

It is difficult to form any judgment as to how the hair on the head became developed to its present great length in many races. Eschricht (28. ‘Ueber die Richtung,’ ibid. s. 40.) states that in the human foetus the hair on the face during the fifth month is longer than that on the head; and this indicates that our semi-human progenitors were not furnished with long tresses, which must therefore have been a late acquisition. This is likewise indicated by the extraordinary difference in the length of the hair in the different races; in the negro the hair forms a mere curly mat; with us it is of great length, and with the American natives it not rarely reaches to the ground. Some species of Semnopithecus have their heads covered with moderately long hair, and this probably serves as an ornament and was acquired through sexual selection. The same view may perhaps be extended to mankind, for we know that long tresses are now and were formerly much admired, as may be observed in the works of almost every poet; St. Paul says, “if a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her;” and we have seen that in North America a chief was elected solely from the length of his hair.

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