July 31, 2010

King thumb

You could say human evolution started when the first brave ape came down from the trees. But scientists have long said that it was making tools that really set humans apart.
And if tools define our species, then it's our hands we have to thank...
"Everything that made us human was arguably given this big push by using stone tools," Williams says, "and so I'm trying to see what it is about our anatomy that allowed us to be good at it compared to other species that weren't good at it."
~ from NPR story, A Handy Bunch: Tools, Thumbs Helped Us Thrive 
I heard this interesting story yesterday. As the above quote indicates, scientists believe that our ability to make tools helped us excel where other species did not. And of course as everyone knows, our thumbs set us apart.

But of course apes have thumbs as well. In studying how humans succeed and apes fail at chipping flint with stones, it looks like a thumb isn't all you need. Turns out the apes thumb is a bit small, and the strength in their hand is more vertical (which allows them to support their weight hanging from branches). The human thumb is longer, and the palm of our hand has more side-to-side strength, which helps us grip the striking stone better. And oddly enough, the lowly pinky comes in to play.

This all reminded of a group camping trip some years ago. Our friend Brent was convinced it wasn't only our opposable thumb that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Now, he has a lot of random theories and ideas, most of which are pretty out there (zero-gravity veal anyone). To prove his point, he talked most of the guys and one of the women into duct taping our thumbs down to make them unusable.

We spent a good five hours with our thumbs taped down. From what I recall, managing our zippers was one of the more difficult hurdles. But we managed to prepare our meals including cooking steaks over the campfire. We could feed, if not clothe ourselves. It was a pretty entertaining evening.

At one point, I looked around the campfire and realized that I was the only one left with duct tape around his hands. I'm not sure if that makes me more determined, resourceful, or just more easily duped into goofy experiments. I am sure if a Park Ranger walked up, my friends would have sold me out. "I don't know sir, he does these odd things from time to time." Friggin Brent.

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