As anyone who’s ever played with a Woolly Willy knows, facial hair is fun. But none so fun as the mustache, that bold yet whimsical upper lip sprout with so many iterations. Originated by Persian horsemen in 300 B.C., as far as we’ve yet discovered, the mustache has long been the symbol for male virility and nobility, until it reached its current period of disgrace as a hipster accoutrement. But lately I have been wondering about the natural and biological history of what the French so aptly call la moustache. Thin mexican mustache.
It would be 2,250 years before NASCAR caught up the mustache.
For a stylistic statement occupying the narrow real estate between the nose and the upper lip, mustaches enjoy a nearly unbelievable number of species within its genus; truly, the mustache is a miracle of adaptive radiation. Some varieties can be best described by their most famous hosts, both heroic and nefarious: There’s the Western mustache group, exemplified by the Sam Elliot, and also in its evil counterparts, the Yosemite Sam, the Josef Stalin, and the John Bolton. The Fu Manchu owes its name to racist 20th Century origins in pulp fiction, but once grown into a full “horseshoe” style, has since been redeemed by Mötorhead and American Chopper. The Handlebar finds its zenith in Rollie Fingers, Dick Dastardly, and Salvador Dali. Then there’s the proud Mexican mustache, associated with armed revolution: the Pancho Villa, the Emiliano Zapata, and the Zorro. The latter also qualifies as one of the thin pencil mustaches, or “lip-brows,” like the John Waters and the Gomez Addams, which have a dignified and aristocratic quality, while bushy mustaches like the Friedrich Nietzsche, the Mark Twain and the Chester A. Arthur exude their own leonine charisma. Hitler’s mustache is so iconic it should be attempted by no one else. Tom Selleck’s mustache is so exquisite that every man, woman, and child should be required by law to wear one.
While mustaches retain popularity in many countries and regions, such as India, the Middle East, and Latin America, they have languished here in the United States in the past twenty years. They are worn only by retro holdouts who are supremely assured of their masculinity — the “awesome uncle” category — or lonely, perverted outsiders who have no idea the fashion has changed since the days of public porno theatres in Times Square — the “creepy uncle” category. They are handy for covering scars and hare lips, for concealing lip-twitching “tells” during poker, and for preserving wayward soup for later consumption. (Or booze.) They’re also not called “handlebars” for nothing. To be sure, some people should never wear mustaches. Conversely, some people who shaved off their mustaches to keep “with the times” should be court-ordered to grow them back immediately. (I’m talking to you, Alex Trebek. AND YOU, DAD. I’M TALKING TO YOU.)
Hair is a uniquely mammalian trait designed to conserve the body heat necessary to maintain a constant body temperature. We’re not sure exactly why, but in the course of human evolution, we have lost most of our body hair, except in the places most prone to heat loss: the top of the head, the armpits, and the pubis. This must be the first and foremost reason we have preserved our under-nose hair: it insulates air traveling into the lungs, keeping our core temperature from dropping precipitously each time we take a breath in the winter. Take as Exhibit A the walrus, which has every reason to keep an aura of warm air around its mouth and nostrils by rocking a righteous ‘stache:
Yet with its upturned nostrils, and most animals’ wet noses, I suspect that air insulation isn’t the primary reason for the mustache. So we turn to the animal with what is undoubtedly the most magnificent cookie duster in the animal kingdom: The Emperor Tamarin Monkey.
This small Amazonian monkey was named for Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany.
Or was it the other way around?
It forages in small troupes in the trees, typically made of unrelated males and females alike, consuming primarily fruits and nectar. Mating is most often polyandrous — one female with several male mates, which is not unusual in the arboreal primate world. Both males and females wear the distinctive white mustaches, much like the elderly Amish. Surely there’s no need of air insulation in the muggy rainforest, but the whiteness of the mustache, clearly meant to stand out against its dark fur, gives us the second — and most obvious — evolutionary reason for the mustache: sexual attraction. A long, robust mustache acts like a bird-of-paradise’s long plumage and sends the same clear message to the ladies that a mustache does in our species: Want to check out my bitchin’ Camaro?
Fortunately for the Emperor Tamarin, the sexual allure of the mustache is not universal. For the Emperor Tamarin often travels in a multi-species troupe with the non-mustachioed Saddleback Tamarin and other monkeys of the same genus. Such multi-species troupes are beneficial for all: more eyes means a better warning system. While each species has its own alarm cry for “Snake!” and “Jaguar!” and “Eagle!,” all species recognize each others’ calls; these monkeys are bi- and sometimes tri-lingual. But such mixed company has the potential for a “Romeo & Juliet” romance between different species, which would result in sterile offspring — biologically speaking, a huge waste of time. Yeah, there’s a reason people get on their kids about having grandchildren. So evolution has endowed each species with distinctive furstyles, irresistible to their own kind and repulsive to others.
But the fourth and most elegant reason for mustaches is ecological. The Emperor Tamarin, as I’ve said, primarily drinks nectar. That nose neighbor isn’t just for wowing the ladies — otherwise only the males would have them. It’s a valuable farming tool, a pollinator. A paintbrush by which the monkey paints its world into existence, if I may wax poetic. By picking up pollen at all the flowers it visits, the Emperor is ensuring the continuation of the species it frequents. Yeah, that’s right: the power of the mustache is so potent it even gets flowers laid. The mustache is important to the survival of both the monkey and the several species of plant it pollinates. So men of the world, take heed: if you can grow a mustache — presuming you’re not blond like me — go forth and pollinate the world. You may be saving an entire ecosystem. Mother Nature clearly loves making out with a mucho macho mustachioed man.