Mark Pagel, head of the evolutionary biology group at the University of Reading in England and editor of The Encyclopedia of Evolution, fills us in:
We humans are conspicuous among the 5,000 or so mammal species in that we are effectively naked. Just consider what your pet dog or cat (or, for that matter, a polar bear) would look like, and how it might feel, if its furry coat were shorn.
Scientists have suggested three main explanations for why humans lack fur. All revolve around the idea that it may have been advantageous for our evolving lineage to have become less and less hairy during the six million years since we shared a common ancestor with our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.
The aquatic-ape hypothesis suggests that six million to eight million years ago apelike ancestors of modern humans had a semiaquatic lifestyle based on foraging for food in shallow waters. Fur is not an effective insulator in water, and so the theory asserts that we evolved to lose our fur, replacing it, as other aquatic mammals have, with relatively high levels of body fat. Imaginative as this explanation is—and helpful in providing us with an excuse for being overweight—paleontological evidence for an aquatic phase of human existence has proven elusive.
The second theory is that we lost our fur in order to control our body temperature when we adapted to life on the hot savannah. Our ape ancestors spent most of their time in cool forests, but a furry, upright hominid walking around in the sun would have overheated. The body-cooling idea seems sensible, but even though lacking fur might have made it easier for us to lose heat during the day, we also would have lost more heat at night, when we needed to retain it.
Recently, a colleague and I suggested that ancestors to modern humans became naked as a means to reduce the prevalence of external parasites that routinely infest fur. A furry coat provides an attractive and safe haven for insects such as ticks, lice, biting flies and other "ectoparasites." These creatures not only bring irritation and annoyance but carry viral, bacterial and protozoan-based diseases such as malaria, sleeping sickness, West Nile and Lyme disease, all of which can cause chronic medical problems and, in some cases, death. Humans, by virtue of being able to build fires, construct shelters and produce clothes, would have been able to lose their fur and thereby reduce the numbers of parasites they were carrying without suffering from the cold at night or in colder climates.
Human lice infections, which are confined to the hairy areas of our bodies, seem to support the parasite hypothesis. Naked mole rats, animals that can be described as resembling "overcooked sausages with buck teeth," also seem to support the theory: They live underground in large colonies, in which parasites would be readily transmitted. But the combined warmth of their bodies and the confined underground space probably negate the problem of losing heat to cold air for these animals, allowing them also to become naked.
Once hairlessness had evolved this way, it may have become subject to sexual selection—being a feature in one sex that appealed to another. Smooth, clear skin may have become a signal of health, like a peacock's tail, and could explain why women are naturally less hairy than men and why they put more effort into removing body hair. Despite exposing us to head lice, humans probably retained head hair for protection from the sun and to provide warmth when the air is cold. Pubic hair may have been retained for its role in enhancing pheromones or the airborne odors of sexual attraction.