The human hand

“Because the thumb is rotated, and because the index finger contributes its own element of rotation, an intimate contact between the digital pads of the finger and thumb is achieved” (Napier, 1980, pp.68-9).

The nerve endings feel like a good place to start. John Napier’s description of the “intimate contact” made by the human index finger and its perfectly proportioned, opposable thumb is a story of origins (1980, pp.68-9). In his survey of the hand, Napier describes the role that fingers and thumbs played in human evolution. He argues that the ability to achieve a precise grip, combined with the stereoscopic vision necessary for hand-eye co-ordination, enabled the use of tools. This manipulative engagement with the world produced an enhanced cognitive focus - the sensory networks of the hands fed back information to the brain, which in turn learned to control their dexterous movements with increasing precision. The positive consequence of this enhanced motor control, tool-using and eventually tool-making, was an increased ability to get food. As a result, the hand-oriented brain evolved to become bigger and bigger, until “from a relatively undistinguished primate background” (1980, p.68) the human being finally emerged.1

Napier’s description implicates the fingertips in a story of cognitive beginnings. The anatomy of the human brain shows a disproportionate number of connections to the hand, given its size in relation to other body parts (areas of the cortex devoted to sensory and motor functions of the hand are rivalled only by those directed toward the other key organ of consumption, the mouth). The thumb and forefinger are well connected for acts of thought. Insert a mark-making implement between these opposing digits and you have a finely evolved and highly sensitive apparatus at the ready.

But the ability to get hold of things is not a uniquely human trait. Just how different is the pincer cognition brought into play by the action of a beak from that of the pinching fingers Napier describes? Sharpened by evolutionary imperatives these grasping acts,2 like those of any claws or talons, retain a common hereditary association to the business of catching, gathering and consuming. Knowledge and survival are closely linked and the grip is a particular means of coming to know.

The god-like hand

There is a history of according to the hand a privileged status as the means of human advancement. Writing at the time of the Roman Empire, Cicero celebrated the productive role of hands. His book, De natura deorum, ascribes to the hands the achievements of gathering and storing food; hunting, breeding and domesticating animals; constructing houses, cities, temples and fortifications. He argues that human knowledge and reason applied through the hands have recreated the world, “confining rivers and straightening or diverting their means of our hands we try to effect as it were another nature(quoted in Summers, 1987, p.243).

The 1934 essay by art historian Henri Focillon, In Praise of Hands (1989, pp.157-185), glorifies the human hand. This “god in five persons” (1989, p.166) is blind and mute and yet exerts a kind of pragmatic leadership. “The hand means action: it grasps, it creates, at times it would seem even to think” (1989, p.158). Focillon credits the hand with having a unique access to the world, in fact being the primary organ of knowledge: “Surface, volume, density and weight are not optical phenomena. Man first learned about them between his fingers and in the hollow of his palm” (1989, pp.162-3). Like Cicero, he links manual dexterity with human advancement: “The power to create a concrete universe distinct from nature...the kingly gift of the human race” he compares to “the limits of cultures that have for equipment only paws, antennae and mandibles” (1989, p.164).

Focillon personifies art as a kind of muscle-bound blacksmith, transforming matter with his strong hands (1989, p.169). When it comes to the activity of drawing, no matter how economical its means, “the full weight of the human being is here in all its impulsive vivacity, and with it is the magic power of the hand” (1989, pp.174-5). In his description, drawing is a sign of the hand; and the hand is the clever, powerful and multi-dextrous appendage that rhetorically exemplifies the human.

The tool

Focillon continues his eulogy with a reference to the threshold that was crossed when the hand extended its reach and grasped the tool:

“As soon as man tries to intervene in the natural order to which he is subject, from the moment he begins to push a pointed instrument or a sharp edge into some hard material in order to split it and give it form, his primitive labor contains in itself its whole future development. The caveman carefully chipping the flint and fashioning needles out of bone astonishes me much more than the clever builder of machines. He is no longer activated by unknown forces; he can work on his own. Formerly, even in the recesses of the deepest cave, he remained on the surface of things; even when he broke up animal vertebrae or tree limbs, he did not penetrate, he had no access to their meaning” (1989, pp.164-5).

The tool is therefore “both a value and a result in itself” (1989, p.165), the element that completes the hand’s superior status and delivers a new and piercing insight into the meanings of the world.

Focillon’s text seems to be an unfettered celebration of human dominance, however, running through his description are the tracks of a rooster’s claws and the deviant marks made by an insect walking across an ink drawing (1989, p.176). Beneath his story of the hand’s heroic struggle to transform the material world there is a sub-text - the recurring beat of the “warm palpitation of life” (1989, p.162) - suggesting that matter is animate and potentially resistant.

The ability of the human hand and its part in distinguishing a species is an on-going concern of scientific enquiry. However, recent primate studies suggest that other animals have an efficient precision grip (Spinozzi, Truppa and Lagana, 2004) and the activities of tool-using and tool-making are not unique to humans. For example, crows have been observed fashioning implements from twigs and bending pieces of wire in order to extract food from awkward places.3 Despite this, for many years anthropological discourse clung to a definition of humans as the tool-makers.4

Examining the work of zoologists in the 1950s, Donna Haraway classes tool-using and making as the “key mythic element of evolutionary scientific humanism” (1992, p.208). For Haraway, this emphasis on the development of tools as the defining moment of humanity belongs to a narrative in which humans are viewed as having side-stepped nature’s determinism - once human beings are able to remake their world and themselves they are released from being part of nature: “Man is his own product” (1992, p.208). This provides a renewed basis for “the persistent western dualism of nature and culture” (1992, p.208).

Tools of delineation

Drawing tools have played a role in the history of technological, industrial and colonial expansion. Maya Hambly’s book, Drawing Instruments 1580-1980, records the development of these devices from the Renaissance onward (1988). Her illustrations show rows of polished instruments carefully preserved in velvet-lined cases, gleaming and surgical in appearance.

These precision-crafted pens, styli, compasses and dividers were used in various professional contexts: civil engineering, architecture, town-planning, cartography, navigation, astronomy, land-surveying, military engineering, armour and clock-making. The exercise of these forms of knowledge involved measuring, planning, schematising, recording and outlining. Above all, clarity and evenness of line was the objective. Such drawing implements were made for the hand but designed to edit out any inflections of the body. The metal shaft occupied an intermediary position between the hand and the point, constituting an armature of control that worked in both directions - both the operator and the line being stabilised by this drawing set-up.

The wooden pencil has had a more provisional role in the history of measured drawing. However, James Faure Walker (2008) demonstrates that pencils were used in the practices of engineering, architecture and advertising until the second half of the 20th century. He argues that only with the advent of digital technology was the pencil finally marginalised to the more nostalgic realms of art.

Scale rules, set squares, dividers, ruling pens and pencils enabled techniques of representation that have left their inscription on the world. Instruments such as these extended the reach of industrialised societies toward ever more sophisticated devices. Hambly (1988) records the history of the production of drawing implements in workshops around Europe. The continuation of the anthropological story of the human as tool-maker is one of perpetual unfolding: not just tool-using and tool-making but using one set of tools to make another, still more elaborate and advanced, until the tools themselves emerge as makers.

The figure of the hand

The limit between tool and body may one day disappear. Neuro-scientists have taken advantage of the brain’s plasticity (and the bodies of monkeys as a functional-not-moral equivalent to those of humans) to engineer advanced interfaces between brain and computer that could guide precisely the movement of a prosthetic limb.5 Such developments in technology could ultimately detach the human hand from the aura still clinging to it.

But even as the hand loses its grip, the history of trying to hold on to things remains as a conceptual residue,6 apparent in common English idioms.

The hand metaphorically stands for possession:

  • to get your hands on something;
  • to allow something to change hands or fall into the wrong hands;
  • to end up going away empty handed.

For control:

  • to take matters in hand;
  • to have a free hand;
  • to govern with a firm hand or a heavy hand or an iron fist;
  • to manipulate the situation and have a finger in every pie;
  • to have a handle on things, with everything you need at hand;
  • to have the upper hand and keep other people under your thumb;
  • to play into someone else’s hands and lose your grip on the situation;
  • to let things get out of hand and slip through your fingers.

For skill or ability:

  • to keep your hand in;
  • to turn your hand to something or try your hand at it;
  • to be handy;
  • to be a safe pair of hands.

And for understanding:

  • to hold on to a piece of information;
  • to know it like the back of your hand;
  • to grasp the point;
  • to put your finger on it.

As the lists above illustrate, the figure of the hand connects acts of possession and control with those of knowing. The role of holding things up for inspection, or holding them in place and keeping them still so that they can be assessed by a critical eye, a discerning nose and presented to a consuming mouth, links manipulative acts to the ingestion of useful information. The recognition of handling as a cognitive capacity by pragmatist philosophers and psychologists has furthered this association between the hand and knowledge,7 but handling is an action or an interaction, not a singular body part. The hand does not act alone, as its metaphorical usage would suggest.

The legacy

Hands have many values attached to them. Long-regarded by anthropologists as a defining factor in human evolution, they have been used to stand metonymically for a figure of the human and particularly to point to the qualities of ingenuity and know-how. The human ability to transform the environment is attributed to the hands either metaphorically or literally, but the association with tool-use and technology, although it has a historical bearing, is increasingly anachronistic. Idiomatically, hands and fingers refer to the business of owning, controlling, skilful operating and understanding. All these references, meanings and histories rub off on ordinary hands and the grubby, manual activities they take part in.

  1. “One cannot emphasise enough the importance of finger-thumb opposition for the emergence of man from a relatively undistinguished primate background. Through natural selection, it promoted the adoption of the upright posture and bipedal walking, tool-using and tool-making which, in turn, led to enlargement of the brain through a positive feed-back mechanism. In this sense it was probably the single most crucial adaptation in man’s evolutionary history” (Napier, 1980, p.68).
  2. Edmund Husserl used the phrase “grasping acts” to mean cognitive acts, not only those of ordinary perception but also those of reflective, meta-level thought: “we must distinguish “straightforwardly” executed grasping perceiving, remembering, predicating, valuing, purposing, etc., from the reflections by means of which alone, as grasping acts belonging to a new level, the straightforward acts become accessible to us” (1960, p.33).
  3. New Caledonian crows have been observed making hooks from sticks in order to pick insects and grubs out of crevices (Hunt and Gray, 2004). The web pages of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group show photos and film of a captive New Caledonian crow apparently bending pieces of wire which she then holds in her bill and uses to retrieve food from a variety of small buckets, tubes and other apparatus.
  4. Napier is an example of someone anxious to hold on to this definition: “The action that elevates termite fishing from mere tool-using to tool-modifying is the careful pruning by the chimp of leaves and side-branches that would impede their use as probes. If we label this sort of activity a crude form of tool-making we make nonsense of the definition of man-the-tool-maker. So, in order to restore the perspective, we must either - as Louis Leakey once said - re-define tool-making or re-define man. In this book I have preferred to re-define tool-making by creating a third category of tool-modifying within the evolutionary stream of tool-using to tool-making” (Napier, 1980, pp.119-20).
  5. A report in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review declares “University of Pittsburgh neurobiologist Andrew Schwartz dazzled the scientific world last year when he demonstrated that a monkey could feed itself chunks of zucchini using a robotic arm powered by the animal's own brain signals” (Bails, 2006).
  6. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1999) have demonstrated that language and conceptual thought take their shape from bodily experience. Structures of meaning develop from the practical business of engaging with one’s surroundings. Every rational projection of thought is an extension of the logic of the body. According to Mark Johnson (2008), recent research suggests that “brain areas responsible for ‘higher’ cognition” may be directly mapped to those neural regions that deal with the basic nitty-gritty of moving around and sensing things (p.47). There is an on-going, two-way communication between them. In this cross-breeding between abstract thought and animal necessity, concepts and knowledge are intimately connected with feelings and emotion.
  7. Pragmatist philosophers have placed an emphasis on the hand. For example, John Dewey focuses on the way in which handling constitutes a change in the relationship with something, bringing about a different aspect: “When we are trying to make out the nature of a confused and unfamiliar object, we perform various acts...We turn it over, bring it into a better light, rattle and shake it, thump, push and press it, and so on” (1930, p.85). Developmental psychologists have also observed the cognitive significance of handling. Jean Piaget observed how a baby’s initial “palmar reflex” develops into intentional grasping. By the age of about four and a half months the infant “starts grasping and manipulating everything he sees in his immediate vicinity” (2000, p.10). Francisco Varela’s theory of ‘enactive cognition’ states “In short: the world is not something that is given to us but something we engage in by moving, touching, breathing and eating. This is what I call cognition as enaction since enaction connotes this bringing forth by concrete handling” (1999, p.8).