Imagine wearing a parka outside on sunny day in July. As you walk around, your body rapidly heats up. You grow uncomfortable and start to sweat. After 30 minutes boiling inside of the coat, you unzip it and feel the cool outside air rush to your skin. If humans had thick fur like chimpanzees, it would probably feel a lot like being trapped inside of a permanent parka, especially when the mercury rises.
Mammals have an internal mechanism called thermoregulation that allows the brain to adjust the temperature inside of their bodies. But there are limits to that range, and for humans, that range is more restrictive on the warmer end of the scale. If your internal temperature increases more than a dozen or so degrees, you'd probably die. To keep your body from overheating, you sweat. But in order for sweat to do its job and cool you off through evaporation, there can't be a lot of thick hair around to get in the way. Most adults have about 5 million hairs across their bodies. That's a steep number, but the hair's short, fine structure facilitates our sweat-cooling response. That capability to withstand heat allowed humans to migrate around 1.7 million years ago from tree-covered areas to open savannas in Africa and onward [source: Rogers et al].
Humans retained plentiful tresses on the tops of their heads for protection. This makes sense since the head is one of the main parts of your body that's consistently exposed to the sun. That means there's a greater amount of heat and radiation that reaches it directly.
Traveling down the head to the face, you encounter the first major difference in hair covering between genders. Men have thicker facial hair and chest hair, thanks to hormones in their bodies called andogens. The root of this gender disparity has to do with natural selection. As humans evolved, the overall amount of human body hair diminished. As that happened, humans with less body hair probably became more capable of survival, which, in turn, made it a desirable trait. Males had more power in selecting mates than females, which may have led to the increased hairlessness in women [source: The Economist].
Speaking of mating, body hair can also play a role in sexual attraction. On a superficial level, some people may prefer partners with long, short or curly locks. Biologically, the areas of thicker hair on humans' underarms and genitals are probably related to sexual selection. Both of those areas are sites of scent-releasing organs called apocrine glands. The odorous chemicals that the glands emit are unique to every person and may help attract members of the opposite sex, like pheromones in other animals. The hair in those areas traps and amplifies those odors, like loudspeakers that amplify your body's chemical siren song of attraction [source: The Economist].
But if those chemicals aren't enough to hook a honey, perhaps you can wow the apple of your eye with a new cut, color, perm or crimp. When it comes to body hair, where evolution left off, we have safety razors, depilatory creams and electrolysis to remove as few or as many unwanted whiskers as we please.
More Great Links
- Barlow, Tom. "How the hairy ape went bald." Financial Times. Aug. 29, 1998.
- Farndon, John. "The Human Body." Mason Chest Publishers. 2002. (Oct. 22, 2008) http://books.google.com/books?id=7Fd7AAAACAAJ&dq=human+body+john+farndon
- "New Genome Comparison Finds Chimps, Humans Very Similar at the DNA Level." National Human Genome Research Institute. Aug. 31, 2005. (Oct. 21, 2008) http://www.genome.gov/15515096
- Rogers, Alan R.; Iltis, David and Wooding, Stephen. "Genetic Variation at the MC1R Locus and the Time since Loss of Human Body Hair." Current Anthropology. Vol. 45. No. 1. February 2004. (Oct. 22, 2008) http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/381006
- "The bare truth; Human hair." The Economist. Dec. 20, 2003.
- Wade, Nicholas. "Why Humans and Their Fur Parted Ways." The New York Times. Aug. 19, 2003. (Oct. 21, 2008) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C03E0DE1030F93AA2575BC0A9659C8B63
- Zuger, Abigail. "Sweatology." The New York Times. Aug. 14, 2007. (Oct. 21, 2008) http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/14/health/14swea.html