- Hardcover: 397 pages
- Publisher: Pantheon; 1st edition (June 23, 1998)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679412492
- ISBN-13: 978-0679412496
- Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 30 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,031,985 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture 1st Edition
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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.
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The three chapters on evolution are worth summarizing. They offer a significant number of insights that are not found elsewhere but are intuitively appealing.
We are not the only land animals to have learned to walk on our hind legs, and not the only ones to have found other things to do with the front legs. Tyrannosaurus rex let them atrophy. Squirrels use them to hold nuts. Kangaroos put them to some use or another. But most significantly, our monkey and ape ancestors have found them increasingly useful for other purposes. Human beings are the only primates to walk exclusively on their hind legs, freeing up the front legs for other purposes.
Monkeys use their hands to grab food and feed themselves. Their hands are extremely well adapted for climbing and jumping around in trees. Monkeys developed binocular color vision, a fair amount of flexibility in their arms, and brains capable of planning and executing sophisticated moves with their hands.
Apes moved from the tops of branches to underneath them, swinging rather than climbing. This brachiation involved some evolution in their shoulders which has served humans well. It also let heavy bodied animals climb higher into the trees, where the food was.
During this long evolution a thumb emerged distinct from the other four digits. It was different, but not yet in a position to coordinate with the other fingers to hold things. As Wilson says, apes are equipped to pick up suitcases, but they can't pick up a baseball with a thumb and fingers.
The last common ancestor between human beings and our closest ape relative, the chimpanzee, appears to have lived about 7 million years ago. Since that time the world has experienced a series of ice ages. Jungle habitats shrunk repeatedly, and our ancestors were forced out onto the open savanna. Wilson uses Lucy, the Australopithecus discovered by the Leakeys, an anthropoid who lived 3.9 to 4.2 million years ago as his frame of reference. Lucy's brain was about the same size as that of the chimpanzee, but her body had changed significantly from that of apes.
Most significantly, Lucy was a full-time biped. Her hands were free. Her legs had evolved significantly; she needed to move quickly to avoid predators and to catch a meal on the open savanna. Her shoulders and arms had also evolved. She was able to use an overhand motion to throw rocks. The ability to throw stones was undoubtedly useful for keeping predators at bay and killing other animals for food. She still did not, however, have a fully modern human hand. In particular her hand was not suited for wielding a club. Its musculature did not allow the thumb to be placed alongside a stick and oppose the ring and pinky finger in a powerful grip.
Rock throwing is done with only one hand, and it takes a lot of practice. Wilson hypothesizes that this is the time in which handedness (favoring righties 9 to 1) came to be strongly expressed in the human genome. Tool use would drive it further, with one hand holding the work object and the other hand holding a tool to craft the object at hand.
Homo erectus evolved the ability to hold tools. Oldowan stone axes date back as far as 2 ½ million years were created by people holding the stone to be formed in one hand (usually left) and chipping flakes off with another stone held in the right. It required some evolution of the musculature, and evolution of the wrist bones to endure the constant pounding. One of the strengths of the book is the generous and informative illustrations of how bones and muscles evolved to meet the new tasks they faced throughout the course of evolution.
Human brains evolved quickly about the time that tools came into use. There are several different theories as to why this happened, all of which probably have some validity. The size of the communities grew, necessitating the intelligence to manage broader networks of relationships. Individuals became more specialized. Toolmaking is a craft. The brain evolved to control the increasingly useful hand and arm. There was almost certainly more cooperation in the hunt.
The need for communication grew for several reasons. The increased size of the tribe, the need to coordinate more complex activities, and the need to teach culturally acquired skills. The surprise is that language did not appear until very late in the game, perhaps 150,000 to 200,000 years ago. This suggests that our anthropoid ancestors must have made extensive use of gesture, by hand and facial expression, probably accompanied by utterances that were not yet symbolic language but nonetheless useful in communication.
Wilson discusses the structure of the brain, and the close relationship between the portions that control the hands and those that deal with language. Intelligent, social animals such as Homo erectus had to be able to communicate effectively in order to manage in the complex societies that they had developed. Wilson's theory is that spoken language, using audio tokens as symbols, is simply a much faster way to communicate than pantomime.
To summarize the first three chapters, and the book in general, the hand has played a central role in every aspect of human evolution. The shoulder, arm and hand saw significant evolution even as the size of the brain grew very little. Then, as hands became more adept, tools came into use in society grew more complex, the brain exploded in size to its present 1.5 liters.
The rest of the book focuses on the extraordinarily varied uses of the hand, and some extraordinarily talented practitioners in each of the areas mentioned. Wilson himself has a very broad range of interests and acquaintances. In his professional life he is a surgeon who deals with problems of the hand, especially those of musicians. The stories he tells of people in different professions emphasize how integral the hand is to the human animal. We are not simply creatures of intellect.
One of the take-home points for this father of young children is how important it is for children to spend a lot of time creating things with their hands. Painting, sawing and nailing, cooking and so on. Even at the time this book was written, in the late 1990s, it was clear that children were succumbing more and more to the allure of computers and video entertainment. Wilson's strong advice would be not to do it. We learn by doing, and we do with our hands.
2. The Hand-Thought-Language Nexus
3. The Arm We Brought Down from the Trees
4. Puppet Lessons from Alexandria and Düsseldorf ===========Puppeteer
5. Hand, Eye, and Sky ============================Juggling
6. The Grip of the Past ============================Rockclimbing
7. The Twenty-Four-Karat Thumb =====================Goldsmith
8. The Right Hand Knows What the Left Hand Just Did =========Handedness
9. Bad Boys, Polyliths, and the Heterotechnic Revolution =======Dragracing
10. The Articulate Hand ===========================Language
11. In Tune and Evolving Prestissimo ===================Musician
12. Lucy to Lulu to Rose ===========================Professional chef
13. Tough, Tender, and Tenacious =====================Physical rehabilitation
14. Hidden in the Hand ============================Magic
15. Head for the Hands ============================Education