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The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture Hardcover – June 23, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0679412496 ISBN-10: 0679412492 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (June 23, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679412492
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679412496
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.4 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #473,894 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

The hand is, among other things, a complex symbol, representing both the creative and the prosaic. This blending of the spiritual and the mundane is what makes the hand unique, as it in turn makes us unique among animals. Neurologist Frank R. Wilson has taken on a heroic task: to explain the hand on both of these levels and to show us how we use these marvelous instruments to find and create meaning in our lives.

Anthropology, neuroscience, music, and puppetry all figure prominently in The Hand, which effortlessly guides the reader through its million-year biography. Brains and thumbs growing and changing to accommodate each other, discovering tools and language together, kicked us out of the monkey house for good. While there is still controversy over whether we are the brainiest animals on the planet, it is abundantly clear that we are the handiest.

This manipulative ability is our greatest strength and our most terrible flaw. Without hands we would have no Louvre but also no nerve gas. But, Wilson says, our situation is more complex. Our access to far greater means to achieve our ends gives us a greater hunger for meaning. We long to use our hands to satisfy our needs--whether spiritual or down-to-earth. This creation of meaning from nothing may be our greatest achievement. In the end, The Hand is brightly optimistic, showing that our reach truly does exceed our grasp. --Rob Lightner

From Publishers Weekly

Neurologist Wilson (Tone Deaf and All Thumbs?) gathers arguments from anthropology, psychology and medicine, along with the personal stories of musicians, backhoe operators, puppeteers and prestidigitators, to demonstrate the centrality to intelligence of our human hand. His account of the coevolution of hand and brain through our primate ancestors is fascinating, and the science he sites is rigorous and profound. The insights along the way are startling to the layperson even if old news to savants. For example, the size of a primate's neocortex is proportionate to the size of its maximum stable social group (our own being about 150). The emphasis throughout is on "the interaction of the biologic and social processes," as, for example, an artist, from early childhood, finds her way toward her instrument, and also as the species itself evolves over millennia, starting, as Darwin observed, with the freeing of the upper limbs by our descent from the trees. Out of the analysis of intelligence as fundamentally somatic there emerges a critique of educational theory. Wilson is a passionate advocate of process-centered teaching with attention to individual intelligences. Despite absorbing material and an ultimately cogent and important argument, his book dwells too long on inessential details of the case histories, and it sometimes loses steam in scholarly discourse; also, the organization into short, pithy chapters obscures the structure of the whole. Thus, although their work is rewarded, readers have to labor a bit too hard to tie the argument together. B&w illustrations throughout.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

This Dr. specializes on the hand.
karen e taylor
Our built-in capacity for language, the most singular human quality, is connected with our hands, too.
Vitello Tonnato
Now, in reading this book, I think it belongs on Obama's desk !
John Snakenburg

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

42 of 42 people found the following review helpful By K. L Sadler VINE VOICE on August 4, 1999
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a neuroscientist, educator, and a Deaf person, I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Wilson's insights into how the hand shapes our lives and our brains. He raises a lot of questions yet to be investigated about how crucial the manipulation of the hands are to cognitive learning. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the questions he's raised both for normal people and those of us who use manual language over speech, and whether those choices in means of communication cause the brain to be mapped differently. Dr. Wilson writes with humor and gives fascinating insights into the worlds of people whose advocations depend upon their hands. This long neglected part of our body should now receive the attention it deserves in shaping our minds.
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 9, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Perhaps the thing I liked the best about this book is the tone of reverence that Dr. Wilson has for the subject of his life's work - the hand. Clearly there is a lot at stake for the author in his work - it comes through in everything in this book - and that's the thing that I found inspiring about it. If only we could all (or at last many of us!) feel the same way about the focus of our work.
I "dinged" it one star for two reasons - I would have liked to have seen more attention played to the concept of how "the hand shapes the mind." A lot of the book seemed like a very well written elaboration on the standard neurologic model of "motor programs" and the brain's role in controlling the hand, etc. The idea that the "history" and "education" of the hand has a reciprocal role in shaping the mind is a very exciting concept, and I would have liked to have seen it explored in more depth.
Second, I thought the book rambled at times. Dr. Wilson tended to bounce around a lot between neurology, anthropology, educational policy, etc. and it wasn't always clear what was driving the transitions from one area to the other.
On the whole, this is an excellent book offering a very unique perspective on the mind and human nature through the investigation of the miraculous but little appreciated hand.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Vitello Tonnato on April 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
We routinely speak of "grasping" ideas, or "holding principles dear" or examining concepts "within our reach." For Frank Wilson, a neurologist who specializes in the bizarre and tragic affliction "musicians cramp," these turns of phrase are not accidental. Integrating brain, mind, and body - forging a psychology of the normal - animates Frank Wilson's study of the human hand.
He marshals evidence from anthropology, philosophy, psychology, anatomy and medicine, linguistics and engineering to discuss the co-evolution of hand and brain within human and human-antecedent societies. Leaving the trees for the savanna set in motion an enormous number of changes for our australopithicine ancestors - the most significant of them the bipedal gait that freed those pre-human hands. We call one of our distant ancestors homo habilis - handyman -- and the intelligence built into our remarkable hands over time gave the evolving human species great advantages in meeting uncertain futures. (Unhappily hands are preserved less well than skulls, so anthropologists naturally skew their investigations.) Wilson describes the mechanics of what we can do that our primate ancestors and cousins couldn't and can't. It is impossible to read these descriptions of the repertoires of hand and arm movements without replicating them. Because chimpanzees' fingers point straight down and ours angle toward the thumb, they are unable to bring thumb to meet pinky. A chimp can't power-grip a screwdriver, throw a baseball, or play a guitar. And neither can he use his fingers in a cluster that makes the three way "chuck" that lets us hold a pen or a brush.
Hand, brain, and eye co-evolved to track a target - hapless gazelle, thick browed foe, or catcher's mitt are all the same in this long view of hand coordinating with eye.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A. Panda on February 26, 2011
Format: Paperback
This book opened my eyes to the complexities of the anatomy and physiology of our hands. I had never thought how many muscles, articulations, nerves and neurons were involved in an apparently simple action like grasping, the difficulties in eye-body position-motion coordination and the immediate sensor-motor feedback it implies, the different forms of grasping that we have compared to apes, how we are able of independent motion of the fingers with certain speed and strength like in playing piano, as well as of sustained strength like in mountain climbing. I have always appreciated my hands, but I was not aware that the way our shoulders and their joints are constructed allowing for a wide angle of rotation were so critical to our basic hand movements. In short, after reading this book you will feel a kind of reverence for your upper extremities as a whole.

The more technical and difficult part of the book is devoted to explaining the anatomy of our hands, starting from the shoulders to each of the fingers and how each part evolved by comparing similar structures in apes and in human ancestors like Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), homo erectus, etc. The other part is devoted to illustrating the extraordinary abilities of our hands by interviewing people that have developed special manual skills like puppet-players, jongleurs, surgeons, magicians or "prestidigitators", artists of different kind, musicians, mountain climbers, jewelers, etc., and narrating how they discovered and perfected their skills and how this has marked their entire existence.

The book in general is very interesting and illuminating, however, the main hypothesis promised in the book's title "The Hand.
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