Our hands make us human. We are different, for both good and bad, from all the other living things on our Earth, because of what we can do with our hands. True, our simian brethren can make and use simple tools, but I doubt the average silverback gorilla is going to engrave treasury notes or sculpt the next David.
The difference lies in our ability to do very fine work emphasizing highly sensitive control of pressure applied by our fingers and the ability to grasp and manipulate very small objects like engraving tools, bobbins and thread for lace making, rosin-coated bows and micro-surgical tools.
This belies the fact that our hands are the toughest parts of our anatomy. They can absorb hundreds of pounds of impact, and one of our first instinctive responses when threatened is to shield ourselves with them, or to thrust them in front of us to break a fall. They are made as much for that as for the sensation of a caress.
Our arboreal ancestors are part of the reason for this. Even infant primates have powerful grips, for hanging on to mama, and for clinging to branches in the safety of treetops. The old joke among aging athletes is that the last things to go are the legs; in fact, it’s the hands.
Our hands have surprisingly little muscle in them; they are a dense network of tendons that push and pull, stretch and contract, and give us a level of control that in every way superior to the normal functions of our feet.
The web of tendons at the end of both of our arms is so dense that it can bear the weight of our entire bodies, a thing known to children swinging on jungle gyms in the park – and to Romans crucifying their victims.
Some of my students have been asking me for information about my past projects, so I’ve dragged in some of my old portfolios to look at, work dating from a pre-computer time of hand drawing, ink drawing with precision instruments and water color brushes. This is as alien to many of them as the carving on Moses’ tablets. For an encore, I’ve brought them maps and city plans from the 18th and 19th century engraved under layers of magnifying glasses with styluses as thin as a hair. The level of control and virtuosity on display in these documents humbles them, and me.
This has been on my mind since I’ve recently had surgery on my left hand. Recuperation has been as predicted and it seems to be a success, but navigating with one hand has proven to be much more of a challenge than I’d anticipated. Try buttoning your shirt with one hand and see how long it takes. Try using the turn signals on the left side of the steering column, or simply driving, for that matter.
For our species, our reach should always exceed our grasp, but as individuals, we are blessed that our grasp is always with us to the end of our days.
- Michael Guarino