Do we Make Art because we are Naked?

I have long been puzzled why humans are naked – without fir – and, I am relieved to see, I am not the only one as it is a bit of a general scientific puzzle as well, in its shadowy way.  The few people I have talked to about this basically give me odd looks – as though I was questioning something that didn’t need to be questioned.  But the joke is on you really, because none of you have ever been able to give me a convincing answer.  “I’m not naked – I’m fully dressed” is one puzzled reply you will hear regularly.  “We lost our hair when we started to wear clothes” being another – apparently forgetting that the more ‘primitive’ peoples (horrible word but you know what I mean) are often still naked and for some reason are nevertheless not covered with hair.  Losing hair must take a lot of evolution and a very distinct evolutionary reason, and have we really been wearing clothes for that length of time?  Hardly.  I know that these days it seems as though they are an essential part of life, but evidence proves that hair loss and the first clothes were separated by a huge period of time.  According to some very clever analysis of the evolution of lice[1], we may have lost our hair approximately 3.3 million years ago[2].  However, the most ancient estimate for when we started wearing clothes (again based on analysis of lice evolution[3]) is only 100,000-500,000 years ago.  Which completely blows out of the water any notion that we intrinsically need to wear clothes for protection because we are naked – at least in our original form.  This is very strong evidence that we formed into more or less what we are today and then eventually started covering ourselves.

Some of the more serious scientific theories on hair loss don’t make a great deal of sense either.  We lost our hair as a reaction to parasites?  Why?  Every creature has parasites.  We were once an aquatic species?  Why?  We are not that well adapted to the water really – our skin is not waterproof (witness our prune-like fingers when we have been in the bath too long) and we can neither see very well under there nor move very efficiently.  Our feet pads, very efficient at walking and scrambling on the ground[4], are suddenly very tricky when walking underwater.

The best theory for our nakedness actually involves a somewhat less-obvious influence.  Sweat.  Humans are great sweaters – compared to other animals.  The dogs for instance, don’t sweat at all.  This theory states that we evolved our naked skins as a part of a general improvement in the mechanics of sweating, probably in response to our movement into the hot dry environment of the African Savannah, coupled with our need to hunt during the day, out in the hot blazing sun.  With our profuse sweating, fur would have the negative effect of trapping the water (and the heat) on our bodies rather than letting it evaporate away, which has a strong cooling effect.[5]  Therefore, a suitably toughened naked skin and sweating is more efficient than any beneficial shading/protecting effects of fir.

It is important to remember that the ‘original’ skin appears to be the darkened skin, which, it appears, evolved its colour as the hair was vanishing.  Which makes absolute sense as the dark pigment melanin is there specifically to protect against the sun – far far better able to cope with it than my white skin or the fragile skin that exists under fur.  So, one can picture early man as a dark and tough-skinned, naked creature possessing a very efficient radiator system as it hunted for prey millions of years ago.  Interestingly enough, if we had evolved as a vegetarian species, we might never have made that change and might well have remained as hairy as a chimpanzee.  But then – if we had evolved as a vegetarian species we wouldn’t have evolved to be what we are now at all.  Incidentally, it is true that the Chimpanzee is also an omnivore and hunts meat but it forms a less important part of its diet than it does us – and also the chimp is a forest creature, where the blazing sun was not such a problem and thus never forced a change like this.

But there is still a mystery here.  Maybe the question should now be, why is my skin white and fragile and generally useless, burning at the drop of a sunbeam, rather than why do I not have fur to cover it?  My own skin is as pale as it gets – the so-called type 1 or ‘Celtic’ skin[6].  If we take a hypothetical dark skin as the original skin – at least, original after we lost our fur – then what the hell happened to create this race of fragile white variants?

Not surprisingly, skin colour is tightly bound up with certain factors of sunlight and geography.  According to the ideas put forward by Jablonski & Chaplin[7], the variation in skin colour derives from the balance we have to strike with UV light from the sun.  Put simply, when the sunlight is very intense (which it is where we first evolved), a lot of melanin is needed to protect us from the intense rays, but where the UV rays are less, less is needed – and indeed, less is desired, for we need a certain amount of UV on our skins to build the essential vitamin D.  So it could be that the adaptations in skin colour are simply the human body maintaining its balance with the sunlight that is available.  So, as humans moved northwards into the great forests of Europe (which is where the lightest skins of all evolved and where direct sunlight of any kind would not have been much of a problem) we simply lightened to match the reducing sunlight and UV intensity, to maintain our needed level.

It is interesting to note that some of the most northerly people of all, the Inuit, still possess fairly brown skins and Jablonski and Chaplin suggest that this is because of the high prevalence of fish in their diet, which is rich in Vitimin D, meaning that there was simply no need to change their skin colours.  Evolution needs reasons for things to happen, after all.  One could maybe speculate that the lack of shelter from the sun up there (in contrast to the north European woods) might also have something to do with that.

Also, this is much more recent in history.  At the time of humanity’s movement intoEuropeand across the world, clothes had been around for a long while.  I already pointed out that clothes probably first appeared 100,000-500,000 years ago, which was long before the first humans left Africa (70,000 years ago) and, therefore, before the first white skins appeared.  Humanity reached north Europe 40,000 years ago and clothes would have to be available to survive the cold.  So this means that our clothes may well have had a physical effect on us after all – certainly not making us naked, but perhaps helping us turn white!  By a) giving us more protection from the sun and b) possibly by covering up skin and maybe limiting access to the UV light that we need.  So, even though it had nothing to do with our hairlessness, we can maybe credit clothing with assisting us change colour – as a part of our ability to survive in these cold climates.  That may upset the nudists a bit – but even so, it shouldn’t be taken to mean that modesty and concealment is an intrinsic part of us.  We had almost 3 million years with naked skin before we started covering ourselves.  It’s worth remembering that.

*    *    *

But what of the hair that we do have?  To me, there always seemed something decidedly bizarre about the great unruly mop of hair on our heads and the three tufts that remain on our body.  However, pubic hair and armpit hair do make sense.  Pubic hair can be quite easily seen in the role of a visual indicator of sexual maturity and both function as a kind of ‘radiator’ or distribution system for pheromones, thus acting as an important element in sexual attraction (and witness then the irony in our mysterious modern fashion for shaving these last poor tufts of hair right off!).[8]  Some say that pubic hair acts to protect against external friction during sex and may even have a role in keeping our rather sensitive bits warm[9] and protected.

But the hair on our heads?  This weirdly huge lanky mop of the stuff on our head that trails everywhere, needs endless attention, gets tangled and probably ends up right over our eyes when we least need it?  Well, there is a theory on that issue that says that our mops of hair evolved in response to sexual selection – the reinforcement of certain characteristics by acting as criteria in sexual attraction[10] – which of course pans out to cover all areas of interaction, status etc.  Or, to put it another way, we found long hair sexy!  This makes a certain sense.  After all, the hair on our heads was probably always a very effective flag – almost exactly like the peacock’s tail and the lion’s mane – and indeed, many monkeys still function in this way, with manes and elaborate facial hair.  So no surprise that it should linger while the rest of our body lost it.  As we lost our hair, something had to remain to fill the role that fur and its colours and condition play in courtship and other interrelations.

It’s worth noting that hair is not quite the fragile, attention-needing thing that we think it is.  We wash it and cut it all the time to keep it ‘nice’ and out of our eyes, but it seems that fundamentally, this is not essential.  People, myself included, have experimented with what happens when you don’t wash hair with soaps and chemicals, and the results are interesting – and maybe worth fanfaring out at high volume: We don’t need to wash our hair!  Normal human hair is quite capable of looking after itself with the same kind of washing that other animals use – clear water.  In fact, it is probably considerably healthier, both for the hair and the scalp.  The more we mess with our hair, the more the texture deteriorates, but we are driven to do it by our cultural demand for a totally sanitised and clean shiny product.  Just as we negate the effects of our under-arm scent radiators by using deodorants.  Natural hair has a slightly thicker texture, is heavier, but is really not unpleasant.  What is unpleasant is the transition phase when the scalp, used to compensating for the debilitating effects of shampoo, continues pumping vast amounts of oils in there until it recovers its equilibrium.

*      *      *

So – now there is still one big question left.  Why, having ended up a naked creature as part of a natural process, are we now compelled to cover up again using artificial means?  What the hell is it with humans and clothes?  After all, under normal circumstances, we don’t treat clothes as a protection as much as a way of hiding ourselves.  We are addicted to them to such a degree that removing them is just about the most traumatic thing that can happen to you.  Why?  Their use for protection and warmth seems obvious and we would have needed them especially when we ventured into cold climates – but is there more to it than that?  We lasted almost 3 million years stark naked but then something happened and clothes appeared – not when we moved north into the cold but long before.  ‘Clothes appeared’, the theories say, but they don’t bother to explain why.  What was it that suddenly prompted us to make use of this after three million years?  Why did we suddenly feel this need for dressing ourselves?

Obviously, something happened in the human brain to change things.  Was it simply that our brains and abilities finally progressed to the stage where we could do something to protect ourselves from all the prickly plants we had to run through?  Maybe.  That’s the classic view after all.  But there is a shadowy suggestion of something else – another possible reason.  After all, what made our brains progress like this in the first place?  My own speculation (and it is only speculation) is that clothes for protection was not the first thing to appear.  And I think that clothing and our dependence on it strikes right back into the processes that first formulated us.

To begin with, there was nothing but ourselves and our own visual signifiers.  Our relations, the monkeys, are the same, also relying a lot on visual signals for interrelations of all kinds – usually either or both fine colours or/and truly spectacular backsides.  And, even though we had lost our fur, we still functioned in the same way.  Our head of hair remained and we still maintain a quite noble backside and its attractive force is every bit as powerful as it is for other primates.  However, out on the plains, there were other forces at work for humans.  After all, the really significant thing about humanity – the thing that allowed it to survive – was far from just physical prowess or condition.  Humans are a pathetically helpless species in their bodies.  Our strength, speed and ability are a joke, we have no natural means of defence, fighting or camouflage – so really the only thing that we have going for us are our brains and our able hands.  So, with us slowly evolving from a state similar to hunting dogs and their intelligent pack hunting into increasingly complex minds, something began to change.

Sexual selection is when a characteristic is reinforced by becoming a criteria when choosing a mate.  Like the peacock tail that confused Darwinso badly.  Of course, this also leads to such things having relevance within social structures, but sexual selection appears to be the fundamental driving force according to many[11].  And, in this newly evolving creature clever enough to survive and overcome its bodily limitations, what was the most important thing when selecting a mate?  Those physical characteristics?  A fine arse?  Beautiful hair?  Of course, those would never vanish, even through to today, but that was not the whole story.  There was also brain power.  The intelligence that allows you to survive and manipulate the world in order to do so.  It is suggested that the brain also became a sexually selected characteristic early on – presumably long before clothes[12].

So how then do you ‘prove yourself’?  How do you help give yourself an edge over your competitors, with the help of these lively new brains?  How about creativity?  What do humans do even today to express love and interest?  Why, you smarten yourself up, ‘look good’ using little tricks and arty touches – and make/get something for the object of your desires that is ideally more beautiful than anyone else can.  Even now, in our cynical modern times, we all know the glow of being on the receiving end of that.

I think the significance of this simple point just cannot be overestimated.  In the practical world, one proves one’s capability by doing things and achieving things, but in the quieter world of interactions with people (including courtship), it can take on other more aesthetic characteristics.  I think, right here, we see the origins of art – as an offshoot of the need to prove ones lively brain and driven by nothing less than sexual selection itself.

This makes the foundations of art basically an extension of the peacock’s tail or the lion’s mane into the brain – into a person’s creativity and ingenuity – and, therefore, survivability.  And, when we began to find intelligence and creativity sexy, that opened up the door to unbelievable things.  What happened to the peacock’s tail happened again to our own minds, driving us to get cleverer and cleverer and ever more creative – cleverer and more creative than we ‘needed’ to for basic survival out there on the African plains – eventually leading to – well – to you.  One can perhaps trace all our art back to this simple beginning – this original powerful reason.  And also trace creativity/art as one of the most fundamental driving forces behind our progression.  All our sense of creativity and, specifically, of flaunting that in an abstract way for its own sake, which is what art is.  All our symphonies and paintings, novels and fashion design, glamour and rock musicians masturbating guitars – it all zeros straight back to this simple drive.  The same thing that drives every other species on the planet.  Given the power of sex in driving the actions of both men and women, it makes sense that our whole drive towards the earliest culture was sexually selected, as some have suggested, just as our brains and our cunning and creativity were.

I am speculating now of course, but I suspect that our creativity grew with us from the very first.  Has always been there, in fact.  The first dawning of aesthetic awareness even goes way back beyond humanity.  We can see it in other animals, even relatively frequently.  From the magpie picking up brightly coloured things to the bower bird building it’s beautiful and elaborate bower with the only purpose of impressing the female with its appearance.  And maybe the aesthetic sense is even more primeval than tool use or manipulating the world in creative ways to achieve things.

After all, being interested in a rock in an abstract sense – as an object – must surely have immerged before turning those rocks into stone tools.  We would have had toys – things we played with.  Things we liked to have around.  And this would slowly develop into a sense of ornamentation.  And, inevitably, self ornamentation.  Ornamenting yourself for artistic rather than practical reasons is universal in all humanity today – more universal than actual keep-warm, modesty-protecting clothes are.  So could it be that it was the art – the ornamentation – that came first?  A self-ornamentation driven into existence by sexual selection, with the practical uses of clothing for protection developing as a secondary result of that?   Especially when humanity was confronted with cold for the first time.  Who knows!  The two dance together of course – the practical and the desire to be creative – and there is really no distinct division difference between art and the practical, so it probably all happened together.  But seeing our artistic instincts as the driving force, propelled by sexual selection and as the fuel behind our development does make a certain sense.  After all, when you look around the tribal societies of the world, even the most ancient, what do we see?  Not the shabby scruffy caveman image wrapped in a few skins, but a riot of crazy colour and decoration, often for no direct practical purpose.  So why shouldn’t that creativity be the fundamental?

Regardless of how they first appeared, the role adornments and clothes played in the sexual selection process is now fairly simple.  As we progressed down our logical course of appreciating increasingly elaborate creativity and self-adorning as proof of a lively mind, what you wear would only become more important to courtship, status and everything else in the group.  Showing off your beautiful hair would be supplemented by the tunic you made and the beads you wove – and you would have to wear them, otherwise you would feel inferior because maybe your competitors have them and would be more likely to get the sex or the appreciation or the respect!  And it is easy to imagine this need for adornment eventually flipping over further and further into a dependence on clothes and the fear of their absence . . . and then backflipping further into the more damaging area of an obsession with covering yourself for its own sake . . . and then of hating the uncovered flesh.  The body itself rendered unworthy.  And onwards and downwards through the infinitely complex tangle of humanity since these early times through to the mess we are in now!  These dreary confusions still bother us, but hopefully they will prove nothing more than a by-product of our super-fast evolution, which will eventually fade away as we slowly get more and more intelligent – always assuming that we continue to progress and don’t stagnate in our post-evolution society, which is very possible.

*     *     *

Do we therefore create art because we are naked?  Of course not!  We really shouldn’t give nakedness that much credit.  It appears that being naked is largely incidental to our development – simply a change that came about to fit us into our world better – like all natural changes.  Would we still have developed the same attitudes if we had retained our fur?  Would we still frantically hide ourselves in the same way?  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a meaningless question.  But in my heart I almost think we might, because maybe clothes are not about hiding skin, but about creating the illusion of what we are.

Maybe the fact that we are artists is the most profound thing about us – not the fact that we are naked artists!


[1] Let’s hear it for the scientific mind!  That’s just bloody brilliant!

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair#Evolution

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_clothing_and_textiles

[4] when toughened up as they should be.  Our shoes and carpets make for very soft fragile feet, which shouldn’t be considered the norm.

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair#Evolution

[6] There are six grades of skin colour.  See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skin_colour#Skin_tone_variability

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_skin_color#Evolution_of_skin_color

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pubic_hair

[9] Presumably in the sense of reducing the motion of air over the skin in these areas, allowing body heat to remain.

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair#Evolution

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_selection_in_human_evolution#Culture_and_sexual_selection

[12] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexual_selection_in_human_evolution#Culture_and_sexual_selection

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Published in: on May 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. Fascinating stuff, David. I never thought some of this stuff through before. But aren’t you seriously forgetting about Shame? Shame is a product of self-consciousness, i.e. self-awareness, a kind of weird bi-product of brains becoming more intelligent. Also, humans are an unusually sexually-active species on this planet… we are in effect constantly on heat, and clothes are a handy way for us to regulate this. African tribes in very hot climates will nonetheless wear cloths to conceal their genitalia. Also, take it from a bald guy: the hair on our heads is there to reduce heat gain in summer and provide insulation in winter… its proximity to our brain may be significant. Also take it from a hairy Scotsman: some of us are still almost monkeys under our clothes!

    • I was trying to cover the development of shame (rather briefly!) in the third paragraph from the bottom, though this is definitely a massive area that one could do a whole thesis on by itself! I would be inclined to believe that shame in relation to our bodies is at least in majority a cultural thing rather than anything intrinsic – or maybe that is just a hope! You may well be right re clothes regulating our sexually active natures, but presumably that is also a part of that same shame – after all, it seems we did spend far more time without clothes than we did with them. Some ‘primitive’ tribes will cover themselves, some wont – it is such a complicated area that my attempt at an essay only scratched the surface, I know that! It’s a subject that bothered me though, so I started researching it! :-)

      Good point about the hair of course! It’s bad science to search for one specific reason for everything! Heheh!


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