During This Difficult Time, Let's Not Forget the Greatness of Human Hands squib

The whole world is not in God's hands. It's in ours. by Charles Mudede
The whole world is not in God's hands. It's in ours. Moyo Studio / Getty Images

Our hands are at the center of the fight against the spread of COVID-19. We have to wash them regularly and for longer than we are accustomed to. We must not cough into our hands, as the presidential candidate Joe Biden did in a CNN interview. We must not shake other hands. We must continuously sterilize objects that afford, to borrow an expression from environmental psychology, hands: doorknobs, keyboards, kitchen appliances, faucets, handles, grips. (Nothing on the body of a horse or cow is afforded by, say, a steering wheel.)

All of this has made very visible the busy lives of our hands. When an eye is kept on palms and fingers and nails, they spread across the built environment with the same speed and extent as the virus itself. The hands are always up to something, always doing a this or that which, under normal circumstances, would go unnoticed. COVID-19 has made hands so exhausting—what is it that they don't touch, they don't grab, they don't finger? Hands on the parts of people, of pets, of plants.

The whole world is not in God's hands. It's in ours. In fact, it is this appendage that constitutes a large part of the kind of ape we are. We must not forget this fact in a time of crisis, a time when our species-specific handiness has become such a big drag. There are two ways that hands made us human. Let's examine each of them briefly.

The first thing that must be appreciated about the human is it's the animal with nothing special about it. One may argue that the human has a big brain in the ways a cobra has long fangs. But it can also be argued that what is really unusual is, say, the smallness of a gorilla brain. Also, many social anthropologists maintain that the size of a brain is much less important than how it is organized, and ours is structured primarily for the enhancement of social forms of interactions. So, the human has a brain that is useless unless it's plugged into a culture. The human does not have dangerous claws but harmless nails that easily crack when opening a can of pop or beer. The human in a state of nature is not great at any specific thing (speed, strength, smell). But the human has excelled precisely because it is so bad at almost everything.

How is this possible? When face-to-face with bison, the human must run. But not far from Yellowstone Park, the same human can enjoy a bison steak in a restaurant. (I had one of these steaks in Montana in the spring of 2013, and to my horror the meat was buried beneath a pile of sticky barbecue sauce.) But, again, how is this possible? How did the human draw so much power from in their uselessness? The answer is our lack of specialty transformed us into the general animal.

To understand why this is so, I must begin with a point made in the 2011 book Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain. It's by the psychobiologist Michael Gazzaniga. He mentions that our hands are not at all like our eyes, ears, and legs. These parts are mostly locked in some function (gathering light, capturing sounds, moving the body from one place to another). But the hands are not dominated by one function. Why? The thinking suggested by Gazzaniga is that human bipedalism liberated the hands, and from this freedom arose an ultra-sociality that ultimately reorganized the brain into an organ that transmits and receives social information. The human became hyper-cultural.

Gazzaniga writes:

Humans... teach everything to their young, and what is taught usually generalizes to other skills. In short, teaching and learning have been generalized. As with other animals, the core constituents of human abilities also evolved as specific adaptations, and humans possess an unrivaled number of highly refined abilities that evolved in this fashion. The combination of these abilities has given rise to additional abilities for solving general problems, leading to domain-general abilities that are uniquely human. The result is an explosion of ability and realization of the human condition.

But what is between this generalization and our hyper-culture are the hands. This is made clear in a key work by the American theoretical neuroscientist Michael A. Arbib and the Italian neurophysiologist Giacomo Rizzolatti, "Langauge in Our Grasp." Written 1998, the paper, which is dense and technical, basically connects processes of mirror neurons with the motor system for "the execution of hand or arm movements." This process and system are located in the Broca's area, which, according to Wikipedia, is "a region in the frontal lobe of the dominant hemisphere, usually the left, of the brain with functions linked to speech production."

Arbib and Rizzolatti:

...the motor properties of human Broca’s area do not relate only to speech: recent PET data indicate that Broca’s area might also become active during the execution of hand or arm movements during mental imagery of hand grasping movement, and during tasks involving hand–mental rotations. Finally, Broca’s area becomes active in patients who have recovered from subcortical infarctions when they are asked to use their paralyzed hand.

It is intriguing that the area, which in the monkey contains a system that links action recognition and action production, is precisely that area that, for completely different reasons, has been proposed as the homologue of Broca’s area.

Mirror neurons basically reflect the actions of others. If I see, for example, a person grasping a glass of wine, these neurons reflect that action and represent it in my mind as if it were an action of my own. They also do the same with spoken words. If someone speaks, I speak their words in my mind as if I were the one speaking them. The deep thing about these mirroring processes is they occur in the same region that manages hand movements and arm gestures. The implication of this homology is that before there was spoken language, there was sign language. It is our hands, then, that led to the reorganization of language-related regions of the brain. What once processed the signs of hands now processes aural signs. This is why the gesticulations of our arms and hands as we talk are something like the relic of the present spoken world.

One more point. Washing hands is something new, at least in Western culture. Its benefits were not appreciated or apparent until the middle of the 19th century. Before that, the distinction between dirty hands and clean hands hardly mattered. The habit of washing hands, then, is not biological but culturally transmitted.

Meagan Flynn of the Washington Post:

...Ignaz Semmelweis, a 19th-century Hungarian doctor who was known as the pioneer of hand-washing. He discovered the wonders of the now-basic hygienic practice as a way to stop the spread of infection in 1847, during an experiment in a Vienna hospital’s maternity ward.

But if Semmelweis were alive today, he probably would be amazed to find that billions were now hearing his pleas amid a devastating pandemic.

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