Monday, 21 January 2013

Where's Yer Fist, Chimp?

My youthful “education” was so corrupted by fatuous “miracles” like the Immaculate Conception that my senility thrills to the eradication of such fatuous “wisdom”. A truely human miracle, of course, is the capacity of all human couples to “create” new lives together and nurture them to maturity. 

Celibacy is allegedly and falsely esteemed as a more moral human option, the greatest “offering” a man can make to an observing God, when in fact it almost inevitably has led to the horrors of child abuse. Thus it is intellectually thrilling to me to observe the “miracle” of two biologists at the University of Utah, Michael Morgan and David Carrier, carefully observe the miniscule differences between the climbing hands of our relatives, the chimpanzee, and our ever developing selves. (“Journal of Experimental Biology,” cited in The Economist, December 22, 2012.)

Peculiarly, the same organ has two names: use it to hold something and it’s a hand; use it to strike someone and it’s a fist! But this second use is almost unknown among other primates. It is thrilling to see those two curious biologists use the greatest and everyday miracle of disciplined consciousness to determine the crucial differences between our human hand/fist and their mere climbing aid! The primate’s hand, they observe, has long fingers and palm; their human relatives have short palms and fingers and long thumbs, which are useless for climbing. 

But they do make it easier for the human hand to grip things in two different ways: the precision grip in which an object is held between the pads of the first and second fingers and the pad of the thumb; the power grip on the other hand all the fingers and thumb wrap around the thing held. These two deployment are essential to tool-crafting skills, one of “homo sapiens” essential skills.

But our two biologists contend that the hand’s exact geometry seems to have derived more from the hand’s destructive (fist) than constructive (hand) use. Animals have other natural weapons: teeth, claws, antlers, horns. But the multiple purpose human hand only becomes a weapon when a fist is formed. They observed that when the fist presents knuckles first, making the force of a blow much greater than an open hand. But our searching duo wanted more evidence so they asked ten athletes (a mix of boxers and other martial artists) to have their fists carefully observed in action and reaction.

The test was to strike a punching bag as hard as they could with both open hand and closed fists, with diverse aims—forward, sidewise, or overhead. They noted how much power an accelerometer attached to the punching bag was recorded. They also used pistons to measure the stiffness of diverse hand shapes: fully clenched fist, a semi-fist with the fingers curled but the thumb pointed outwards, and a poorly formed fist in which the fingers were folded over the palm and the thumb pointing outwards. (The last was the closest a Chimp could get to a real fist!) 

The accelerometer recorded that a side swipe made with a closed fist delivered 15% more power than an open-handed strike. Thus they decided the power derived more from the geometry of the bones, especially the closed together knuckles(one quarter the space of an open hand.) Crucial was the way the fingers curled back on themselves. And the buttressing effect of the thumb. With such measurements Morgan and Carter determined that the human fist was four times as rigid as the Chimp effort to make a fist. When a chimp curls up its fingers , it leaves a gap in the middle of the hand with no buttressing thumb.

Our duo decided that the human fist and its parallel tool making skill were two distinct cases of natural selection. “Which,” they concluded, ”makes perfect sense, for it has long been the case that the species is divided between those who prosper by making things with their hands, and those who rely on their fists, or the threat of them, to take what the makers have made.” 

How pathetic Divine Design curricula such as those made mandatory in the State Of Texas look in the light of this kind of science. Such Chimps in the Austin legislature can only wield feeble fists. They can’t climb the tree of Natural Science. We must all learn to cherish the everyday miracle of rational consciousness. Otherwise we are probably doomed to eventual extinction.

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