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The Importance and Evolutionary Significance of the Opposable Thumb (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The Importance and Evolutionary Significance of the Opposable Thumb (2004) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 26, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2004 and published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  The essay earned over 9,700 page views on Associated Content/Yahoo! Voices, and I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 26, 2014

It is often said that the defining trait which separates man from the animals is an opposable thumb. While many may take that remark in jest, there is in fact much truth in it. Without the opposable thumb, human beings might never have attained the highly civilized, sophisticated, and technological lifestyles that many of them enjoy today.

Opposable thumbs are required for efficient gripping of objects as well as performing fine manipulations upon them. As soon as man’s tools evolved from crude blocks of stone into more refined objects, the skill of refining objects with his hands on a tiny scale became indispensable to him. After all, virtually all of the early accomplishments of human civilization were built through sheer manual labor!

It is interesting to note what happens to a species that is similar to humans in brain capacity but lacks an opposable thumb. The chimpanzees, though possessing a high degree of intelligence, have advanced only to the level of rudimentary tools for food procurement, most of which (like sticks and blades of grass) are already pre-furnished in the environment and need only be used at the chimps’ discretion. Due to the lack of an opposable thumb, chimpanzees have extremely scant means of creating anything more complex than what they already find in their natural surroundings.

This would probably be man’s fate as well if an opposable thumb were not present – though, owing to man’s rational consciousness, he might have advanced slightly further, perhaps devising some of the larger, cruder tools of early Neolithic society by using more primitive versions of hands (and maybe even the toes of his feet) to put together certain basic implements of farming or hunting.

But it is doubtful that man would have developed writing (as a thumb is indispensable in the act). Thus, he would not have devised a means of storing and passing on information in the long term, implying that he would still lead a largely primitive lifestyle not characterized by noticeable technological progress. The emergence of painting, sculpture, and music would have been unthinkable; people require thumbs to hold paintbrushes, chisels, and musical instruments.

Thus, the importance of the opposable thumb to man’s uniqueness and development is not a laughing matter. Though it is not the sole aspect differentiating man from the animals, it is certainly a significant one. This essay would certainly not have been possible without one!