periscope Cabinet of Everyday Curiosities

Talking To The Hand

On the human hand as a masterpiece of evolutionary art.

By Kalpish Ratna | 1 February 2013

Last week, an argument made me take a second look at my hand. The proofs of a translated story had just come in, and once my vitals had normalized, I reached for the phone.

“Why not?” demanded the literal minded translator when I protested that “Lotus Do” is not a good reading of “Kamalakar”.

The real reason why not was a 47-year-old memory.

1965: Our progressive English teacher had encouraged us to read American magazines, and the week’s assignment was TIME magazine’s cover story on Lal Bahadur Shastri. I had read the essay with my nine-year-old heart bursting with indignation. I didn’t know the word ‘racist’ then, but the idiom of insult sickened me. When it was my turn to speak about the piece, remembering Lyndon Johnson was over six feet tall, I passed up ‘tiny and turkey-necked’ and protested instead about TIME’s translation of the Prime Minister’s name.

“Graduate Brave Jewel isn’t Lal Bahadur Shastri,” I said.

“Why not?” the teacher objected.

“Miss, are you a red-brown wolf?”

It was a rational question, but Mrs Hazel Lobo thought it impertinent, and I spent the rest of the morning kneeling in the corridor.

Nearly fifty years later, neocolonial journalism is still de rigueur. I would have to do better with “Kamalakar”.

I turned down the translator’s next try (“Lotus Maker”) and explained that if the name needed translation at all, “Kamalakar” would work better as “Just”, or “Incorruptible”.

“Ok, I get it about lotus and purity, but why the -kar? That’s the verb ‘do’.”

“But it started off as a noun. It means ‘hand’.”

“‘Lotus hand’. Ah, I get that. Funny though, the hand becoming do.” She called off with a chuckle, leaving me to ponder her words.

Why was it funny? Wasn’t it an obvious transition? The hand is a doer, isn’t it? We’re human because it can do so much. Or, as we learnt in Anatomy 101, we’re human because we have opposable thumbs.

There are two ideas in that. Both, it turns out, are sloppy science.

Let’s get the thumb out of the way first.

My thumb can sweep right across my palm, reach up and touch the tip of the little finger, and flex its terminal joint through 90 degrees. If my (sub)species is defined by this ability, then this skill is around 2 million years old.

 

Homo sapiens sapiens, the species that can think about thinking, has only been around 70,000 years, but our ancestor, Handy Man, Homo habilis, who was making crude tools in the Olduvai Gorge about 2.3 million years ago, also had a neat opposable thumb. That gave us, in the 1960s, the comfortable feeling that humanness was all about meeting the need to make tools to strike and skin prey by growing a longer, more flexible, thumb. Nice thinking for a nine-year-old, but today that story sounds a bit thin.

A much older ancestor, Orrorin tugenensis, who lived 6 million years ago, also had a precision-grip thumb. This hominid, nicknamed ‘Millennium Man’, was way more human in its grip than we expected from Handy Man’s clumsy tools. Though it was getting there anatomically, this hand was far from human. Millennium Man walked on two legs. The precision grip was a fallout of bipedalism—a fairly stable fact to start with.

About a million years after Millennium Man, we parted ways with the chimpanzee. The chimpanzee picked the life arboreal and had little use for a long opposable thumb. Its thumb was too inadequate to permit the hand to squeeze or cup, actions unnecessary to chimp etiquette.

It was a fair division of spoils. We kept the long thumb, grew cushiony pads of fat on the palm, and got ready to swagger. The hand was ready for some serious social climbing.

It is depressing that paleontologists consider violence the first human action the hand performed. Hominids learned to pick up objects and hurl them at fleeing prey. They learned to grip a stick and whack the next guy. The hand of Australopithecus afarensis, 3.2 million years old, already shows changes adapted to these actions, though it still holds on to some arboreal traits.

I’m not convinced by the inference.

So what was the hand getting ready for? To pick up objects and grip their spherical contour? We do that all the time, and very rarely with violent intent. Why should our ancestors have been any different? Especially, since these two new skills provided a new, more exciting, facet to existence. The brute essentials of forage and domination were part of life anyway, but this new experience changed everything.  

Before Millennium Man, the hand was a creature of compulsion. Calloused, short-thumbed, steely fingered, perfect for the unexamined life. Knuckle-walking, arboreal-swinging, grasping and avulsing fruit-laden branches—it all went like a breeze with hands like those.

But this new one, the one that could pick and cup objects, this one was electric with discovery. It was soft, thin-skinned, and abuzz with sensors that lit up a maddening array of sensations from the intolerable to the sublime. Shape, texture, consistency, heft—all these nuanced a world being redefined by tactility. It was incredibly sexy, and incredibly moving. The combination may well have been our first perception of beauty—as it still is. This was the sensual hand, the one that moved us, predictably, towards sapience.

 

That’s not easy to believe when you take a look at Handy Man’s toolkit. Paleontologist Louis Leakey, who pioneered the discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, could skin an antelope in less than 20 minutes using one of Handy Man’s choppers, but anybody else, less inspired, would throw it aside in disgust and reach for his trusty knife. My friend António Vieira, an evolutionary biologist, postulates that Handy Man’s toolkit should be viewed as a lexicon, a pre-adaptation for language. His argument is based on a parallel between the different actions involved in making a tool and the different components of grammar. He believes the progression of manual skill established the neural wiring for language.

By that argument, Handy Man’s grammar was as elemental as his toolkit. It forces the question: Did Handy Man speak?

The popular answer to that is, no. Speech is unique to humans because the FOXP2 gene (acronym for Short Forkhead Protein P2, a protein that causes severe speech disorders in humans when mutated, hence also dubbed the ‘language gene’) underwent a change some 50 to 70,000 years ago, and brought about the anatomical changes in the larynx that make articulation possible. This, however, does not preclude proto-speech.

Proto-speech is the verbal equivalent of Handy Man’s toolkit.

That demands a revisionist view of the Homo habilis hand. It wasn’t clumsy. Those tools were its first shot at manufacture. Before that, Handy Man had used his hands to talk.

The need to talk probably arose soon after the hand became sentient. What did we do to flaunt our elegant new appendages? Probably what a teenager does now to show off her first manicure. We waved them about. We wanted them noticed. We wanted us noticed. We gestured—and we were understood.

The hand spoke.

Handy Man’s cranium suggests his brain had a well-developed Broca’s Area—on the left side.

Broca’s Area is a catchall term for the parts of the frontoparietal brain used to process language.

So Handy Man was using those networks already, even as he started chipping away at flints and quartzes—probably with his right hand.

Left cerebral dominance is common in many species, but right-handedness is uniquely human. Strangely, human subjects asked to pick up objects from a quadripedal posture don’t always reach out with the hand they use when they stand upright. Handedness, chirality, is another fallout of standing upright. Why did it come about?

The answer seems to lie in that stellar bit of brain that’s the rage today—the mirror neuron system in Broca’s Area. It is bilateral in monkeys but strongly left predominant in humans, and associated with both gesture and speech. So, taking note from Handy Man, gesture and vocalization were already compacted 2 million years ago. By then we were used to speaking in gestures. The hand did all the talking—what did it speak?

Again, the answer seems to lie with the mirror neurons. Gestures were imitated, and replicated, because of their meaning, and in turn, they wired the brain for syntax.

You could go further and say the hand prepared the brain for speech. Observe a toddler at the exciting moment of saying her first word. She waves her hands, flaps them, as if readying for take off—and then the word explodes, delighting her. And you. Her joy in the accomplishment is that of someone who has pulled off an impossible task. A task that took our kind millions of years to master.

The hand hasn’t quite stopped talking. Sign languages, dance mudras, secret society runes, semaphore codes—all esoteric gestures, exclusive to small groups, replay the forgotten language of all humanity.

As a coda, we didn’t really master the skill of making tools till we stopped gesturing and started gabbing instead. When the noise got too deafening, we picked up a burnt twig and drew a picture on a rock. The hand embarked on its solipsistic career of nourishing the soul.

 

The hand, and its celebrants, are déclassé today. The hand’s a doer, and there’s almost nothing left to do. Things are no longer doable, they simply get done at the touch of a button or a screen. True, that’s a lot of work for the pads of our fingers, and I predict a quick evolutionary change there. They’re already thickening, but they soon will be insensate as well. Perhaps we’ll grow nail extensions like thimbles with QWERTY stipples and emoticons.

That isn’t as mad an idea as it sounds. We’re now directing evolution at a molecular level. The next decade might see a gene that works out a new suite of changes in the body much as the FOXP2 did years ago.

Meanwhile, what do I have to contend with? Twenty muscles, 26 bones, 40 tendons can make for a lot of trouble, and the hand is ground zero for stress maladies. True, before the word processor, we did have writer’s cramp. That’s still around, but it’s gained status as writer’s block, and more correctly located within the skull.

The hand’s own worries are strictly situational, and it finds it impossible to cope with its new lifestyle. Sitting around looking pretty is not so bad, that’s been done for centuries. It’s some of the things the hand is forced to do that makes its anatomy so rebellious. Its new diseases include oddities like Rubik’s wrist or Cuber’s thumb, Raver’s wrist, Swiper’s or Stylus finger, Blackberry thumb, and, inevitably, Typist’s cramp. That’s the official list.

The unofficial malaise of the hand is far more pervasive and has to do with a cosmic misfit. The hand’s technology was designed to embrace the world, to define and comprehend it. Today’s technology has turned that inside out. It has shrunk the world to fit the palm. We may grasp it, but we can no longer touch it. Intelligence is no longer tactile.

 

As the hand becomes effete, the brain will simply rewire its circuitry to recruit other parts of the body. That’s what happens when a hand is amputated. The brain’s map of the missing hand ‘stretches’ into arm and shoulder. The plasticity of the brain—its ability to form new pathways and connections—is phenomenal, but we, as yet, know very little about it.

I’m not sure I’d rely on, say, the breast, to take over the life of a hand. It is a strong candidate, given the degree of attention it invariably gets.

Or again, technology might decide on hair instead. Sleek, gorgeous, practically virtual already, it is so much less conflicted in our post-gender world.

That might take a week. Or, a millennium. Meanwhile, there’s still a little time left for my hand to feel life and grasp its meaning. 

 

Last week, an argument made me take a second look at my hand. The proofs of a translated story had just come in, and once my vitals had normalized, I reached for the phone.

“Why not?” demanded the literal minded translator when I protested that “Lotus Do” is not a good reading of “Kamalakar”.

The real reason why not was a 47-year-old memory.

1965: Our progressive English teacher had encouraged us to read American magazines, and the week’s assignment was TIME magazine’s cover story on Lal Bahadur Shastri. I had read the essay with my nine-year-old heart bursting with indignation. I didn’t know the word ‘racist’ then, but the idiom of insult sickened me. When it was my turn to speak about the piece, remembering Lyndon Johnson was over six feet tall, I passed up ‘tiny and turkey-necked’ and protested instead about TIME’s translation of the Prime Minister’s name.

“Graduate Brave Jewel isn’t Lal Bahadur Shastri,” I said.

“Why not?” the teacher objected.

“Miss, are you a red-brown wolf?”

It was a rational question, but Mrs Hazel Lobo thought it impertinent, and I spent the rest of the morning kneeling in the corridor.

Nearly fifty years later, neocolonial journalism is still de rigueur. I would have to do better with “Kamalakar”.

I turned down the translator’s next try (“Lotus Maker”) and explained that if the name needed translation at all, “Kamalakar” would work better as “Just”, or “Incorruptible”.

“Ok, I get it about lotus and purity, but why the -kar? That’s the verb ‘do’.”

“But it started off as a noun. It means ‘hand’.”

“‘Lotus hand’. Ah, I get that. Funny though, the hand becoming do.” She called off with a chuckle, leaving me to ponder her words.

Why was it funny? Wasn’t it an obvious transition? The hand is a doer, isn’t it? We’re human because it can do so much. Or, as we learnt in Anatomy 101, we’re human because we have opposable thumbs.

There are two ideas in that. Both, it turns out, are sloppy science.

Let’s get the thumb out of the way first.

My thumb can sweep right across my palm, reach up and touch the tip of the little finger, and flex its terminal joint through 90 degrees. If my (sub)species is defined by this ability, then this skill is around 2 million years old.

 

Homo sapiens sapiens, the species that can think about thinking, has only been around 70,000 years, but our ancestor, Handy Man, Homo habilis, who was making crude tools in the Olduvai Gorge about 2.3 million years ago, also had a neat opposable thumb. That gave us, in the 1960s, the comfortable feeling that humanness was all about meeting the need to make tools to strike and skin prey by growing a longer, more flexible, thumb. Nice thinking for a nine-year-old, but today that story sounds a bit thin.

A much older ancestor, Orrorin tugenensis, who lived 6 million years ago, also had a precision-grip thumb. This hominid, nicknamed ‘Millennium Man’, was way more human in its grip than we expected from Handy Man’s clumsy tools. Though it was getting there anatomically, this hand was far from human. Millennium Man walked on two legs. The precision grip was a fallout of bipedalism—a fairly stable fact to start with.

About a million years after Millennium Man, we parted ways with the chimpanzee. The chimpanzee picked the life arboreal and had little use for a long opposable thumb. Its thumb was too inadequate to permit the hand to squeeze or cup, actions unnecessary to chimp etiquette.

It was a fair division of spoils. We kept the long thumb, grew cushiony pads of fat on the palm, and got ready to swagger. The hand was ready for some serious social climbing.

It is depressing that paleontologists consider violence the first human action the hand performed. Hominids learned to pick up objects and hurl them at fleeing prey. They learned to grip a stick and whack the next guy. The hand of Australopithecus afarensis, 3.2 million years old, already shows changes adapted to these actions, though it still holds on to some arboreal traits.

I’m not convinced by the inference.

So what was the hand getting ready for? To pick up objects and grip their spherical contour? We do that all the time, and very rarely with violent intent. Why should our ancestors have been any different? Especially, since these two new skills provided a new, more exciting, facet to existence. The brute essentials of forage and domination were part of life anyway, but this new experience changed everything.  

Before Millennium Man, the hand was a creature of compulsion. Calloused, short-thumbed, steely fingered, perfect for the unexamined life. Knuckle-walking, arboreal-swinging, grasping and avulsing fruit-laden branches—it all went like a breeze with hands like those.

But this new one, the one that could pick and cup objects, this one was electric with discovery. It was soft, thin-skinned, and abuzz with sensors that lit up a maddening array of sensations from the intolerable to the sublime. Shape, texture, consistency, heft—all these nuanced a world being redefined by tactility. It was incredibly sexy, and incredibly moving. The combination may well have been our first perception of beauty—as it still is. This was the sensual hand, the one that moved us, predictably, towards sapience.

 

That’s not easy to believe when you take a look at Handy Man’s toolkit. Paleontologist Louis Leakey, who pioneered the discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge, could skin an antelope in less than 20 minutes using one of Handy Man’s choppers, but anybody else, less inspired, would throw it aside in disgust and reach for his trusty knife. My friend António Vieira, an evolutionary biologist, postulates that Handy Man’s toolkit should be viewed as a lexicon, a pre-adaptation for language. His argument is based on a parallel between the different actions involved in making a tool and the different components of grammar. He believes the progression of manual skill established the neural wiring for language.

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Kalpish Ratna is the pseudonym of surgeons Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan. Their novel The Quarantine Papers was shortlisted for the Crossword Award and the recent Room 000 is a history of the epidemic of bubonic plague that devastated Bombay in 1896.

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