Functions of Hair

In comparison to other mammals, the relative hairlessness of humans is so unusual that it raises the question, Why do we have any hair at all? What purpose does it serve? There are different answers for the different types of hair; furthermore, some of the answers would make little sense if we limited our frame of reference to industrialized societies, where barbers and hairdressers are engaged to alter the natural state of the hair. It is more useful to take a comparative approach to this question and consider the purposes hair serves in other species of mammals.

Most hair of the human trunk and limbs is probably best interpreted as vestigial, with little present function. Body hair undoubtedly served to keep our ancestors warm, but in modern humans it is too scanty for this purpose. Stimulation of the hair receptors, however, alerts us to parasites crawling on the skin, such as lice and fleas.

The scalp is normally the only place where the hair is thick enough to retain heat. Heat loss from a bald scalp can be substantial and quite uncomfortable. The brain receives a rich supply of warm blood, and most of the scalp lacks an insulating fat layer. Heat is easily con

27hirsut = shaggy ducted through the bone of the skull and lost to the surrounding air. In addition, without hair there is nothing to break the wind and stop it from carrying away heat. Hair also protects the scalp from sunburn, since the scalp is otherwise most directly exposed to the sun's rays. These may be the reasons humans have retained hair on their heads while losing most of it from the rest of the body.

Tufts and patches of hair, sometimes with contrasting colors, are important among mammals in advertising species, age, sex, and individual identity. For the less groomed members of the human species, scalp hair may play a similar role. The indefinitely growing hair of a man's scalp and beard, for example, could provide a striking contrast to a face that is otherwise almost hairless. It creates a badge of recognition instantly visible at a distance.

The beard and pubic and axillary hair signify sexual maturity and aid in the transmission of sexual scents. We will further reflect on this in a later discussion of apocrine sweat glands, whose distribution and function add significant evidence to support this theory.

Stout protective guard hairs, or vibrissae (vy-BRISS-ee), guard the nostrils and ear canals and prevent foreign particles from entering easily. The eyelashes can shield the eye from windblown debris with a quick blink. In windy or rainy conditions, we can squint so that the eyelashes protect the eyes without completely obstructing our vision.

The eyebrows are often presumed to keep sweat or debris out of the eyes, but this seems a minimal role. It is more plausible that they function mainly to enhance facial expression. Movements of the eyebrows are an important means of nonverbal communication in humans of all cultures. Eyebrow expressiveness is not unique to humans; many species of monkeys and apes use quick flashes of the eyebrows to greet each other, assert their dominance, and break up quarrels.

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