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Humans' evolution has led to the loss of most body hair, which the NY Times article Why Humans and Their Fur Parted Ways covers fairly well. Among the theories:

  • Humans went through a semi-aquatic phase
  • A defense against external parasites that infest fur (lice, fleas, ticks)
  • Sexual selection: skin serving as a sign of fitness

But imagine a world where humans never lost their body hair, perhaps even evolving more effective fur coating depending on climate and environmental pressures.

Human culture is very intertwined with clothing, evidenced by the question What's the point of clothes?. It's difficult to conceive of a world where clothing never existed, but only because it was unnecessary for comfort and protection.

I imagine that a civilized society would still require some sort of identification for positions of authority, various jobs, and stature. Colored bands, hats, or sashes might be utilized for such purposes.

Chewbacca Sash

But I'm wondering more about the larger impact in society without clothing and its entire industry. Sure, fashion might be conceived of all sorts of ways of styling ones' fur, rebellious teenagers might shave patterns or portions of themselves much to their parents chagrin, and the hair-care industry would be positively lucrative.

Assume human fur would be sufficient for most environments on earth, allowing humans to comfortably survive in cold climates. People living near the equator might have thinner coats, but sufficient to provide protection from the sun without being too hot. (Fur thickness or color might well have precipitated racism in this alternate human history.)

How would the world be different where humans possess a practical, comfortable natural covering that for the most part precludes the need for clothing?

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    $\begingroup$ Too short for an answer, but: without clothing, people don't automatically have pockets. Everyone will either have a purse of some kind, or some utilitarian belt or sash to carry necessary things (e.g. the things we carry in our wallets and purses - ID, money, etc.). Pickpockets have a job that is easier in some ways (the thing to steal is right out in the open) and harder in others (easier to see that it's been stolen). $\endgroup$ – Tim S. Oct 25 '14 at 14:01
  • $\begingroup$ @TimS. keep in mind that many female clothing doesn't have pockets either $\endgroup$ – o0'. Sep 2 '15 at 8:49
  • $\begingroup$ Related (but closed as too broad): How would having a prehensile tail change society? $\endgroup$ – a CVn Sep 2 '15 at 11:19
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There would be differences, but those differences would mostly be fairly subtle.

TL;DR: Tiny Clothing Industry, Fashion Industry about haircuts and dye, no tropical holidays, low skin cancer rates.

The main likely outcome is the lack of a nudity taboo, there may well be some taboos that serve a similar purpose of controlling sexual signalling but nudity in of itself would become much less likely. It's still possible that one would develop, in which case society would look much like our own, but it's unlikely so the rest of this answer will run with that outcome.

The clothing industry would be much less important and would be restricted to small statement or utility items such as sashes, belts, etc. Certain haircuts, patterns or dyes could well be used to signal social status and rank. For example certain dye colours and patterns might be only used by certain people.

People would be much less flexible in their ability to move between environments. People adapted to the equator with thin fur that offers more sun protection than heat protection would struggle in colder conditions and need clothing, immediately making them seem weak and ineffective to the locals.

Equally though people adapted to the colder climates would have thick warming fur that would cause them to quickly overheat in tropical conditions. The idea of people in cold areas moving to a hot area for holiday may well seem crazy, especially if the fur is related to status so they would strongly resist shaving it off. The development of Swimming Pools and Air Conditioning might change that a little but people would still be much less likely to travel to find different weather.

On the bright side though incidences of Skin Cancer would be much lower :)

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  • $\begingroup$ and without nudity taboos, there's a lot less religious groups can do to control a population... If you can dictate what people can and cannot wear as clothing, that's a powerful mental image of you being in total control. See also the historical laws in some countries dictating what colour clothing and even what shape shoes people of different social standing are allowed to wear. $\endgroup$ – jwenting Oct 27 '14 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ @TimB - Curious what you think of what fur would do to our skin, primarily our pretty unique ability to sweat and keep cool for long periods of physical exertion $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Oct 27 '14 at 21:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Twelfth Sweating and fur generally are not compatible, you'd either sweat in selected locations and have no fur there or you would not sweat at all and use a mechanism like panting. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Oct 28 '14 at 12:07
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    $\begingroup$ Oh my gosh, swimming pools would be absolutely awful! Imagine cleaning the filters! (Shudder) $\endgroup$ – Xandar The Zenon Dec 26 '16 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ Horses sweat all over their bodies, but they also have a special kind of hair or oil coating (i'm sure which) that quickly wicks the sweat away from the skin, it's why horse coats are often very glossy. $\endgroup$ – No Name May 31 at 0:19
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Huge effect here, but not in the way I think you are going for.

Human's developed something exceedingly unique on Earth...our skin. Unlike any other creature, our skin is built for endurance allowing sweat to flow freely and cooling us off. This allows us to reach an extended level of physical endurance that very few other species can replicate. Early humans were more than capable of chasing down game animals over a longer period of time, exhausting our prey and allowing for it's eventual capture. There exists to this day, tribes of people that can run hundreds of miles in a single journey, without rest. This ability is almost entirely from our skin's ability to cool us off as needed.

A natural fur covering would heavily impede one of our most distinctive evolutionary traits...we wouldn't sweat to the same degree (would human panting become prevalent?) and our activity would be confined to short bursts in hot climates. Our rates of movements would be heavily reduced and it's questionable if our species would be capable of some of our greater movements/migrations as we spread through the globe.

Edit:

I'm not sure if WWII would have had the same outcome. One of the most environmentally stressful roles in WWII was ultimately tankers that were forced to endure extreme temperatures inside their tank for extended period of time. Without our ability to endure these conditions via our skin, I'm not sure if extended tank warfare would be possible without some heavy air conditioning techniques coming around.

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  • $\begingroup$ Regarding WWII, the Russian front also wouldn't have been nearly as brutal to the Germans if they had fur. Same goes for Napoleon's invasion of Russia. $\endgroup$ – reirab Nov 10 '14 at 0:59
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    $\begingroup$ Considering alternate timelines, I really think that if you posit a major difference far back in the evolution of humanoids, then while you'd almost certainly have war in the world of furry humans, and they might well develop armoured fighting vehicles, that fundamentally different timeline isn't going to contain the concepts "Russia", "Germany" or "Napoleon"! $\endgroup$ – Lostinfrance Sep 2 '15 at 9:28
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    $\begingroup$ Sorry to spoil your illusion of human superiority. Horses sweat equally well and they're good in endurance. Wolves (& dogs) are great in endurance even without proper sweating. Then you have there camels, antelopes, ostriches -- all endurance runners superior to humans over the timespan of a few hours. Humans have terrible running economics and the endurance is not inborn -- we have to train for it, unlike other animals. And finally, sweating = loss of water, which can lead to a metabolic failure later into a long run. While there are more resource-conservative ways of cooling down. $\endgroup$ – charlie Sep 3 '15 at 8:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Charlie ancient humans were runners, there was no training because it was a way of life. Todays sedidentiary human population needs to train. In horse vs human marathons, humans are occasional winners. At 4 to 5 hours, humans can keep going while horses, camels, antelop and the sort tire before then. Weve had a human run for multiple days straight and complete 50 marathons in 50 days of recent. Incan runners did 50 mile segments on a daily basis, through mountain terrain and high altitude. Of course modern humanity has much lost this, but running was a way of life for ancient man. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Sep 4 '15 at 18:29
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab German problems in Russia didn't just come from cold. It came from the fact it was some tens of degrees colder in Russia that it is in Germany. A soldier with fur adapted for German weather would have need the same additional clothing for the Russian winter than real German soldiers needed in addition to their German uniforms. $\endgroup$ – Pere Dec 25 '16 at 12:10
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Clothing

Even with fur, in any location that has variation in temperature and climate conditions, you're still going to have clothing. In the middle latitudes on earth (consider North America and Europe, for example), any particular location may have temperatures ranging from well below freezing to hot and muggy over the span of a year. Further, they'll experience a range of snow, slush, rain, clear, and things in between.

Nobody's going to wander around naked all the time in such conditions, fur or no fur. So, clothing is still a factor. (Also, people today depend on having pockets.)

The nature of the clothing may change; I would expect looser-fitting clothes so that one's fur doesn't get matted and, especially in summer, pressed uncomfortably against one's body. For indoor use and on pleasant days (spring/fall without rain) we should expect to see clothing that covers less body area (and thus interacts with less fur) -- shorts and tank-tops, or maybe just shorts, might well be the norm. For going outside, one might need to don additional garments.

I think the net result of all this is that clothing is still used but it is much more utilitarian. Clothing is not how you'll make fashion statements.

Finally, they're still going to wear shoes, about as much as people wear shoes now. The environment hasn't changed, so people who don't want to go barefoot on city sidewalks or when walking across gravel or in places with lots of litter or dirt or in snow or whatever bothers you, aren't going to want to do that in their furry incarnations either.

Fashion and personal expression

So if clothing isn't the avenue for fashion that it once was, what will replace it? I think Tim has the right idea here -- dyes, decorative shaving, and other specialized hair care will become more important.

Also, with a body covered in fur tattoos aren't available any more (unless you also shave the area). On the other hand, if you do do the "shave + tattoo" approach, recovering from errors in judgement is much easier -- let it grow out. There'll be no need for expensive and painful tattoo removal. So it's possible that a tattoo industry will still exist in an altered form.

Housekeeping

We should expect either a lax attitude toward, or an industry designed to combat, the shedding problem. Anybody with dogs or cats knows that a certain amount of shedding happens year-round and more during the spring (when animals shed their winter coats). If furry humans also go through this (and your question implies that they probably do), they're going to generate a lot more "droppings" than we're used to, and they won't be confined to people's homes. People will shed at the office, when shopping, when eating in restaurants...

Society might decide that that's a normal part of life, not unsanitary, and not worth worrying about. On the other hand, people might consider this a problem ("waiter, there's a hair in my soup" just became much more common), in which case we should expect technological and social responses. One's daily grooming probably includes a thorough brushing over the whole body, but maybe it is also customary to do something upon entering another space (office, restaurant, etc), something akin to wiping your feet on the doormat but for the whole body, to catch loose hairs. Maybe some equivalent of the RoombaTM is always running and in use. Air-filtration systems might also be beefed up.

Related to this, they'll probably approach plumbing, specifically the hair-trap in the shower, differently. Either it has to be ok for that much hair to go down the drain, or there needs to be a way to catch as much as comes off an entire body without blocking the drain from water. If you have longer hair (as I do), think about how much hair you pick out of the trap after a shower now, and multiply that by a factor of several.

Recreation

If loss of fur was a result of humans going through an aquatic phase, this suggests that our furry humans won't be much into swimming, water parks, and maybe other water sports. What will replace those -- in particular, how will they, socially, cool down in the heat? You'll have to decide how outdoor-oriented your furry people are; they might just spend more time indoors in the air conditioning in summer, or they might replace swims with camping trips in the woods (where the shade helps).

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  • $\begingroup$ "any particular location may have temperatures ranging from well below freezing to hot and muggy over the span of a year" Wolves (and many other animals) already deal with this by having a much thicker winter coat than summer coat. I don't see why furred humans would necessarily be significantly different in that regard. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 27 '17 at 7:24
  • $\begingroup$ "they might replace swims with camping trips in the woods (where the shade helps)" Unfortunately, sure there's shade in the woods, but there's also typically plenty of trees which prevent any significant breeze. It can get seriously hot in a large wooded area during the summer, especially near the ground, because there's very little wind to move the air. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Dec 27 '17 at 7:27
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling the camping event I attend every summer has open spaces and woods surrounding a lake. There is a significant temperature difference between the two, noticeable just from walking around the site. The wind and temperature would depend on the type and density of the woods, wouldn't they? (Good point about wolves.) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Dec 27 '17 at 15:03
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To extend Twelfth's answer... a few things off the top of my head in no particular order. Most of these apply to lower technology human societies where modern technology hasn't compensated for biological differences.

Humans lack fur because we hunt by running. Humans can out run any animal on earth.

It's people without horses catch horses. They jog after horses, never catching them but never letting them rest either. After about 20-25 miles at most, the horse can't run any further, the human walks up and puts a rope arounds it's neck.

With flint, wood and bone weapons, hunters wound prey and then run it into the ground.

It's hard to cool by sweat with fur. If you ever seen a horse, "lather up" you've seen the basic problem. Horses have very thin, fine, close knapped fur yet still it interferes significantly with evaporation.

So, first off, humans with fur would have evolved to hunt differently. Likely, we would hunt with traps or with in larger groups like wolves. In either case our entire physiology might shift. We'd be adapted to sprint horses or wolves, to catch game quickly.

One affect might be a decrease in sexual dimorphism (overt differences in body shape by sex.) Part of the difference between men and women can be attributed to men being more adapted to protracted exercise. Distribution in muscles, muscle recover time, more sweat glands etc all point to optimization of men for running. If such optimization were not needed, then men and women might be more similar in physiology just like wolves and other canines and just like wolves, there would be less specialize of labor and less specialization in behaviors.

Most sexually monomorphic species are matriarchal, with the entire group supporting the reproduction of the matriarch, at least in hard times. Human society might be radically different historically although we might start out with something like we have now after technology has leveled the playing field between men and women.

We likely would have had trouble with prolonged relative work like most pre-industrial agricultural work. Humans have to be careful not to kill horses and oxen by forcing the animals to work as long as humans do. We would adapt society to allow working in sprint shifts, with two or more individuals tag teaming a single job to keep the work going. If men and women where physiologically similar, they could swap off child care and work for everything except nursing.

Individuals might commonly pair up with siblings, other relations or friends for life, both specializing in the same job and together forming a complete work team. So, if someone was a blacksmith, their partner would be as well. People didn't have time to waste so individuals would have some secondary task to occupy them at a lower level of effort while they rested from the main task. Human social structure would be based on this partnership. It would affect everything from military units to marriage.

Humans would be less mobile in general, at least preindustrial. Unable to walk, march or run as far, they would have to adapt activities to being closer to home. Any systems based on walking, like cities, would be more compact.

Armies would march and move slower but move faster in battle itself owing to likely greater sprinting speed. Battles would have to be decided faster before exhaustion set in. Battles would be very intense but short. This would favor more organized forms of shock warfare, like Greek Hoplites. The idea would be to hit the enemy hard and fast and do maximum damage in the shortest amount of time. Alternatively, there would be more pressure to develop a rotational system like the Romans used to grind away at an enemy while preventing exhaustion of individuals.

If the pair system did evolve, that would be part of the military as well and if men and women were more physiologically similar, then women would participate in combat more. If women could fight, that would increase per capita fighters in the population. Combined with intense shock warfare, battles could be more devastating with more adults overall in a population likely to be killed.

Slavery might be more difficult both in terms of the danger of going to war to capture slaves, the added difficulty in controlling women and the inability to substitute humans for animals and machines in many circumstance e.g. treadmills. Managing slave work would be more difficult if slaves had to constantly swap out task.

Having fewer slaves would likely reduce the profitability of war (slavery being a huge driver of warfare in classical times.) It would also foster technological development because it would be difficult to solve a complex problem just by throwing more slave at it e.g. threshing grain or grinding flour.

There would be greater pressure to domesticate animals for transportation and labor and greater pressure to develop vehicles and machines. Riding animals and carts would be more common of basic necessity which would make it harder to restrict horses to military caste aristocrats. With less of mobility advantage, such societies would be less hierarchal and more egalitarian e.g. classical Greece with few mounted warriors relative democracy as compared medieval Europe with knights on horses like tanks and most of the population serfs.

Lastly instead of skin color, fur length would likely distinguish whether individuals had equatorial or polar ancestry. Equatorial peoples would evolve shorter fur while polar peoples would evolve longer. Fur color would likely be seasonal. In Equatorial regions, long fur might become a status marker indicating an individual did not have to labor and worry about heat. In polar regions, the opposite would occur, short fur indicating a individual had surplus wealth for heat or clothes.

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    $\begingroup$ Well written. I'm too the point of wondering if early early human could have become dominant if it weren't for skin and lack of fur. Running in our 2 legged method may never have developed as our primary hunting strategy...furred humans = walk on all 4s? $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Nov 10 '14 at 17:54
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Tim B has written a brilliant answer among many good answers, but I nonetheless think he doesn't give enough weight to the really big difference he himself spotted: "People would be much less flexible in their ability to move between environments." That would mean that conquest, migration and settlement would only take place in a broadly east-west direction. And when the land stopped, expansion would stop.

Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs and Steel details the profound effects on human development of the fact that, even for us naked-skinned humans, to expand along an east-west axis is much easier than to expand along a north-south axis, and Eurasia aligns east-west while Africa and the Americas align north-south. This has affected agriculture, domestication of animals, parasites, plagues, and wars.

For the furry humanoids all these effects would be vastly magnified.

I doubt that the species would ever spread out to cover the whole world, and even if it eventually did, I doubt it would long remain as a single species.

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Grooming

Whilst parasite control would be something that was well under control in the modern day, we would have still come from a culture where we cooperated in removing fleas and lice from each other. Combing each others fur would be a common social activity but with lots of subtle social rules.

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I searched this question because I've been thinking about it and then wondered if anyone else did. Here I think is the main thing. People pay way too much attention to other people's facial expressions. Our genes give us our face but a natural face can look sweet or angry and we react to others' faces constantly and continuously, but make all kinds of assumptions. Our brain creates a cascade of what-ifs and guesses: "He's sad. Probably because..." "She's mad because I just said that." "He's not very smart, is he." "What does she think is so damn funny?" We read a spectrum of information on each other's faces, but no one knows what is in the mind of another, so this makes us very self-conscious. This is why we humans have such a hard time of it. Self-consciousness. Not only are we guessing at what others' expressions mean constantly, we are assuming or fearing that others can read our emotions or thoughts. We attempt to interpret what they might be interpreting, and we go through this all day long every day. We become aware of this sometime in our innocent little childhoods, and then we have lost that innocence forever as we embark upon the speculation train of who could be feeling and thinking what, and why.

Other animals don't have this, so they get to glide along without angst at all. If we had fur, our faces would be like dogs' faces or fox. Covered in nice colors and patterns, nicely shaped, and very attractive I think, and the emotions we feel or the genes or injuries that might make one's face look a certain way, are blissfully hidden behind our fur. We look a lot better! Think of a hairless cat. They don't look as good as a furred cat. A furred cat could have a really ugly bare face but that doesn't factor in at all if you are a species with fur. Everyone looks good. We would still read faces, but it would be different. Look at your dog's face and notice many expressions, but fur does a lot to make one look good at all times, and dials down the misinterpretation factor significantly. I would say that having fur would make us all enlightened, but I wonder if there would be a need for enlightenment at all, if we were furred.

Next question: I wonder why animals don't cry like humans?

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel that this answer misses the point. It focuses on facial expressions, conveyance of emotion, and aesthetics rather than addressing how society would be different. Also I don't agree with the explanation that emotions or injuries are hidden behind fur as the body language of many animals convey emotional state without human facial expressions. $\endgroup$ – JYelton Jul 18 '16 at 16:08

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