Beards are badges of symbolic honor that, by expressing dominance, help men to compete for female suitors. The marketplace for potential mates is a crowded one: Not only are more young people moving to urban centers, where competition for romance is greater, but also online dating has introduced a much larger pool of potential mates outside our immediate communities. 

Researchers at the University of Western Australia say that primates in large, multilevel societies resort to badges or symbols to distinguish themselves from others and that these symbols typically communicate dominance. In humans, the rise in men with beards and tattoos suggests that such symbols are becoming more sought after as a way to draw lines of contrast.

Dr. Cyril Grueter led the study, which was recently published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior online, and commented on the importance of symbols in our communities of increasing population:

"In large groups where individuals are surrounded by strangers, we need a quick, reliable tool to evaluate someone's strength and quality, and that's where these elaborate ornaments come in.  In the case of humans, this may also include phenotypic extensions such as body decoration, jewelry and prestige items."

Beards have become popular in some social groups more than others. The broad hipster culture can claim to have been among the first to embrace beard culture, along with other dramatic marking symbols like piercings and tattoos. But has the wide adoption of once-fierce markings diluted their potency? Or are those outside the hipster community simply contemptuous of a group they don't understand?

In his Big Think interview, novelist Jonathan Lethem discusses that very possibility:

"It just sounds sort of attractive to me, a hipster. I thought yeah, I guess that is sort of my culture. Those are my people and I was just about able to go on thinking that it was a perfectly nice thing to be until someone pointed out to me or it finally sank in that it was meant contemptuously."


Read more at The Telegraph.