Beards evolved to help us fight? Evidence from UFC

Why men have beards is a bit of an evolutionary mystery. Could it be because they provide an advantage in combat? Researchers examined facial hair in the UFC to see if this was the case.


As you may have noticed, there are some differences between males and females in our species. Facial hair is one of the more in-your-face examples, pun intended. Scientists have been trying to explain why this difference evolved since Darwin. He thought beards were a way of signalling to mates1, like a peacocks tail.

Since then many researchers have found evidence for Darwin’s idea, although their work isn’t without its flaws2. In this uncertainty gap, several alternative hypotheses have found a home. And not all of them sound quite as sane as “a peacocks tail on your face”.

So strap in as we break down one of my favourite unusual explanations for why beards evolved: to help us fight.

Science in the octagon

If you had to name the best place to conduct psychological research, the UFC probably isn’t the first thing that leaps to mind. However, it provides a unique chance to examine how people view the most testosterone-fueled, fighty-ist males.

When you ask which UFC fighter is the most masculine, people tend to agree. They also tend to think that person is more likely to win their bout. And the people are right, they do actually have a higher chance of winning3. Although it is worth noting, this only applied to male fighters4.

Pictured: science

Beards also receive a similar rating to UFC fighters, being viewed as more masculine etc. than a naked chin. This led some researchers to speculate that fighting and beards might be linked. They figured there may be two main reasons for this4:

1. Beards actually help people fight, likely by providing some padding and protection to the face. People with beards are often described the same way as good fighters because they actually are good fighters, thanks to their beard. 

2Beards hinder fighting ability as they provide a place for an opponent to grab. Thus, only the best fighters dare sport such a handycap.

Either way, over the course of evolution beards and fighting evolved hand-in-hand. Hence, we also evolved to link the two.

Beards help us fight

The researchers returned to the Octagon to test their hypothesis. They gathered data from 600 fights over the past few years, gathering information on the winners and their physical attributes. They also rated their beards on a scale from 1-9 based on type of beard4. Type 9 was my favourite:

From there, it was a simple case of running a statistical analysis comparing these variables. In a surprising plot twist, it turned out there was no correlation between fighting success and owning a beard, bushy or otherwise. Interestingly, height, weight, reach and many other physical traits also showed no correlation in fighting success4.

Here’s what I just said in graph form:

How often fighters lost by KO (left = never, right = always) versus their bearded nature. Notice the fairly even split between bearded and unbearded

Unfortunately for the two hypotheses proposed, they both needed beards to correlate with fighting success to have any validity. And since it doesn’t, they don’t. The scientists on the study were big enough to admit it too, which is always good to see. Ruling out explanations is still important work.

References

  1. Darwin, Charles (2004). The Descent Of Man And Selection In Relation To Sex. Kessinger Publishing. p. 554.
  2. Dixson, B.J., Rantala, M.J., Melo, E.F. and Brooks, R.C., 2017. Beards and the big city: displays of masculinity may be amplified under crowded conditions. Evolution and Human Behavior38(2), pp.259-264.
  3. Little, A.C., Třebický, V., Havlíček, J., Roberts, S.C. and Kleisner, K., 2015. Human perception of fighting ability: facial cues predict winners and losers in mixed martial arts fights. Behavioral Ecology26(6), pp.1470-1475.
  4. Dixson, B.J., Sherlock, J.M., Cornwell, W.K. and Kasumovic, M.M., 2018. Contest competition and men’s facial hair: beards may not provide advantages in combat. Evolution and Human Behavior39(2), pp.147-153.

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