Isaac Newton And Other Long-Haired Buggers

A Lancashire-born science postgrad once told me about a Northern proletarian who was given his first tour of the National Portrait Gallery, or some similar collection, featuring members of the 17th and 18th century Royal Society. His only comment was, “Right lot of long-haired buggers in them days, weren’t there?” This man’s attitude was an artefact of the Great War, when in order to prevent lice heads had to be shaved in the trenches. Short hair then became the symbol of manly and military virtue, as it had not been for many centuries.

It was, of course, no good telling these generations about the Cavaliers with their flowing locks and dandyish dress, or about how the Spartans groomed themselves before dying at Thermopylae. They were simply unable to perceive manly and military virtue in any male with long hair, whatever his actual merits as a warrior. In those days people unable to name a single late-Roman emperor were piously convinced that the Roman Empire was brought down solely by the wearing of long hair and beards. Certain Romans of the Republic, such as Cato the Younger, might well have agreed with them about the consequences of “Greek effeminacy”, once again ignoring the evidence from the Spartans.

So what is going on here? Why are militaristic cultures like the Roman Republic and twentieth-century Europe and America so certain that long hair is inimical to martial prowess? It becomes stranger still when we reflect that long hair is a genetic-health display in both sexes. The longer it is, the more easily we can see its condition, as any woman fretting about split ends can tell us. Contrariwise, when contemplating a buzz-cut Marine or a skinhead we are deprived of this particular cue to physiological vitality. Why, then, should we wish to deprive ourselves of this information about the male as a genetic purveyor?

One answer may be that the men of the short-hair-obsessed culture do not wish to be selected on the basis of their genetic health. The most likely reason for this in turn is because they wish to be selected on the basis of their wealth. The fetish for short hair may thus be a sign of an attempt at male redirection and control of the mating process, away from female choice and towards intra-male economic competition. Alternatively, it may be a strange kind of Zahavi Handicap, whereby the men are proclaiming that they are so confident that their genetic superiority is immediately recognisable in other ways, such as perhaps their ability to goose-step, that they can dispense with hair as a marker.

A third answer is that there was never any chance that hirsuteness could be regarded as a “private” matter, as the hippies most disingenuously pretended. I say “disingenuous” because at the same time they were promoting long hair as a sign of social rebellion. Generations have rebelled before, but none with such evident astonishment and indignation at having their rebellion actually opposed. For most of Occidental and perhaps even human history, long hair and beards have been reserved to the rich seniors, and so hairy youngsters created disorder in the status hierarchy; a matter with which one messes at one’s peril.

A fourth answer may be that it is all entirely arbitrary and random; that the standard could be anything at all, as long as it created a standard below which others duly fell, thus legitimising social aggression against them.

Posted on August 10, 2011 at 11:03 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

7 Responses

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  1. Written by urban
    on August 7, 2011 at 18:05

    There’s a little more to it than ‘the way we used to’ and ‘the way we do now”. Since you brought up Leonidas and his Spartan let us not forget that when scouts brought back word that the Spartans were preparing for battle by braiding their hair and dancing, Xerxes laughed. And they’re wearing dresses! He expected a cakewalk. Instead he got a mosh pit.

    Xerxes clearly was of the modern persuasion as to the virtues or lack thereof of long hair in battle. And I can see his point. Let’s face it, long hair gives ones opponent something to grab onto in hand to hand fighting, obscures vision, and just generally gets in the way. Go ask Absalom.

    I think of it as more similar the way my cat Boid’s tail gets HUGE and the fur on her back stands up when she gets ready to fight. It makes her look bigger. If you are a blue painted, mud-caked-dreadlocks haired, naked Thracian charging down the hill in ambush you want to appear large to scare the shit out of your enemy.

    Years at the gym can make you appear bigger also, thereby making long hair no longer necessary, and I have noticed a correlation between very short hair and beefy gym-bodies, but that may have as much to do with sweat and ventilation as with martial symbolism.

    And modern warfare is very different from anything our hypothetical Thracian knew anyway. Being huge is of little advantage in pulling triggers and pushing buttons. The beefy Goliath is just an easier target anymore.

  2. Written by Grinebiter
    on August 7, 2011 at 20:31

    Re Absalom: I reacted the same when I saw the 19th-century romantic statue of the Cid in Burgos — beard like a Tolkien dwarf’s, too easy to grab. But the very danger of that might make it a Zahavi Handicap: behold, I am such a puissant warrior that I can wear all this impractical adornment and still kick ass.

  3. Written by urban
    on August 8, 2011 at 07:12

    I’ve often wondered about Absalom’s hair. Quite aside from it being his undoing, they make such a big deal about how everyone loved his hair. About how much it weighed. Weighed? Hair? Really? That’s definitely starting to sound like a Zahavi Handicap, but how heavy can hair really get? Compared to what? Feathers?

  4. Written by Mick Whitehead
    on August 8, 2011 at 13:06

    At the risk of sounding crude, I would extend this discussion to include the apparent ebb and flow of women shaving their private parts. Compare the situation today to the ’60s. What’s behind this phenomenon? It seems to me that when societies shift to the right a kind of Marine crop becomes popular and in periods of social unrest or ‘leftism’ the reverse is true.

    My understanding is that pubic hair has survived evolutionary change because it causes attractive sexual odours to be retained longer.

  5. Written by urban
    on August 8, 2011 at 13:16

    I suspect that the correlation is not between pubic hair fashions and politics but between pubic hair grooming and grooming in general. Beyond comparing the ’60s–a likely aberrant decade–to today, is it true that the right grooms and the left doesn’t?

  6. Written by Hugo Grinebiter
    on August 8, 2011 at 14:30

    @Mick: that is a subject on which I am not as much of an expert as I should like, so I shall have to leave the fieldwork to you and Urban. 🙁

    Five cents, though: shaving probably started as an imitation of customs common in certain climes and cultures, and is thus an artefact of global travel and migration. Cf the term Brazilian wax. So the refuseniks might indeed suffer from Not Invented Here syndrome as rightists generally do.

    Doctors in my country are trying to discourage pubic shaving for precisely the reason you cite. But in a very hot country, I guess it’s a trade-off.

  7. Written by urban
    on August 8, 2011 at 15:02

    My recent fieldwork does suggest that fastidious grooming of the short and curlies is indeed the rage. I see this across a political spectrum although I’ll have to admit that my sample on the right is small and perhaps a bit atypical consisting entirely of one non-religious libertarian.

    My sample on the far left is zero, so lets just say the centrists, independents, non-ideological pragmatists, and the not-particularly-political types tend to groom. As for the Christian Right or the Posse Comitatus Right. Who knows and who cares? No desire to do the legwork, personally. Same with the wack jobs on the Left.

    In the ’60s hippies were slovenly and often reeked, but those same people ARE now the Right so I’m not sure we can generalize much about pubic grooming from their flirtation with whatever it was they were flirting with.

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