The Common Hand - By Carl Zimmer Illustration by Bryan Christie - National Geographic
The hand is where the mind meets the world. We humans use our hands to build fires and sew quilts, to steer airplanes, to write, dig, remove tumors, pull a rabbit out of a hat. The human brain, with its open-ended creativity, may be the thing that makes our species unique. But without hands, all the grand ideas we concoct would come to nothing but a very long to-do list.
The reason we can use our hands for so many things is their extraordinary anatomy. Underneath the skin, hands are an exquisite integration of tissues. The thumb alone is controlled by nine separate muscles. Some are anchored to bones within the hand, while others snake their way to the arm. The wrist is a floating cluster of bones and ligaments threaded with blood vessels and nerves. The nerves send branches into each fingertip. The hand can generate fine forces or huge ones. A watchmaker can use his hands to set springs in place under a microscope. A pitcher can use the same anatomy to throw a ball at a hundred miles an hour.
The hand is so remarkable that the great Scottish surgeon Sir Charles Bell wrote an entire book in 1833 praising it, The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design. At the time, the notion that life evolved was beginning to circulate, but Bell thought a close look at the human hand would dispel such silly talk. “It presents the last and best proof of that principle of adaptation, which evinces design in the creation,” he wrote.
There’s just one problem with Bell’s argument: It didn’t explain why other species have hands too. No one would doubt that the five fingers at the end of an orangutan’s arm are anything else. In other cases we have to look closer. A bat’s wings may look like sheets of skin. But underneath, a bat has the same five fingers as an orangutan or a human, as well as a wrist connected to the same cluster of wrist bones connected to the same long bones of the arm.
When Charles Darwin wrote Origin of Species, he singled out this odd coincidence. “What can be more curious,” he asked, “than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern?”
For Darwin, there was a straightforward answer: We are cousins to bats and to all other animals with hands, and we all inherited our hands from a common ancestor.
There are also related X-ray images of human and other vertebrate "hands" here:-