Ahead by ten fingers
Scientists tell us that about 3.2 million years ago, human ancestors began walking on two legs. This is an old story, and the clinching evidence for this, as many of us will remember, came with the discovery and piecing together of fragments of the skeletal remains of a female Australopithecus in Ethiopia in 1974 by a team of scientists. These scientists reconstructed 40 percent of this particular hominid’s skeletal frame from the hundreds of fossilized pieces of bones they dug up, and when it became known the hominid was a female, they christened it Lucy, taking the name from the famous Beatles number, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” which these scientists were fond of listening during the long excavation expedition.
The story of Lucy is now well known and documented, how she was found, who found them and how the bones were dated first to about 2.8 million years and then revised to 3.2 million years after more advanced tests and so on. We also now know there were controversies over its ownership and protests over its planned exhibition tours all over the world. We even know the exact number of plastic replicas of Lucy as she would have looked in flesh and blood, and which museums around the world these are on display.
Lucy’s story is fascinating and intriguing in equal measures. However for now, let us leave the scientific matters of how and why the discovery is important in the study of the evolution of the human species. I have brought up this topic for something else very interesting with profound bearing on how humans have come to be what they are today not just in body, but also in spirit. Why exactly is it considered revolutionary from the evolutionary point of view that Lucy and other hominids of that era began walking on two legs? Wouldn’t humans have been still humans, towering above all other creatures of creation because of their superior intelligence, even if they were to continue to walk on four legs? After all, is it not the human brain with its immense capacity for creative thinking, which has made all the difference? Had it not been for the great evolutionary leaps taken by the human brain, would there have been something as the mind as well? If still on four legs, would the pursuit of knowledge in diverse fields of science, technology and humanities that the human species have come to distinguish themselves for, been any different?
Why then is this epoch when human ancestors felt the need to straighten up their spines and walk on two legs considered as the wondrous event triggering off the beginning of their evolutionary journey on a separate path than the rest of the animal world? As I have said before, we will leave the more technical question of what possibly may have been the pressures on these hominids to begin wanting to walk on two legs, for the scientists to speculate on. We will instead try and imagine the consequences of this decision to change physical posture, and what miraculous differences the decision made.
Let me then return to the original question as to what it is about walking on two legs that made the phenomenon superior to walking on all four limbs, considering especially that animals on four legs are generally faster runners, faster swimmers, stronger, climb with more ease, and perform many more physical feats much more efficiently? Should not these physical advantages have put them on a better stead in the fight for survival, the primary law of which is the Darwinian “survival of the fittest”?
Quite surprisingly, the answer that has generally escaped the imagination of most through the ages is, Lucy’s generation of human ancestors, freed their fore limbs from the burden of locomotion. These freed limbs, in the course of evolutionary time, grew in movement agility, dexterity, sensitivity etc., until they came to be the human hands that we know today, capable of accomplishing unimaginably intricate tasks, although we tend to take our hands so much for granted that we often fail to see its importance in making humans what they are today. Indeed, if an evaluation of all the different parts of the human body were to be done and graded on a scale of importance in humans coming to dominate the living world, the hand may be the primary instrument that shaped this present.
Come to think of it, what is it that the human hands cannot do? Would all the progress that modern humans have inherited or made been possible at all? Would all the grand scientific inventions been a reality? Would the magnificent architectural creations happened or great works of art and music ever created? Indeed, would whatever else that have distinguished human achievements from those rest of the animal world, been possible? If Lucy’s generation of human ancestors, for whatever their challenges of the era, not freed the upper limbs by straining to straighten their spines and walk on their hind legs, probably nothing that we know of today’s human reality would have materialized.
Although the idea of evolution is relatively a modern notion contingent upon Charles Darwin’s ground breaking work in the 19th Century, quite intuitively though not scientifically, the importance of the human hands was acknowledged much earlier. This is evident even in the Panchantantra tales told in comic books that were so popular amongst the pre-television generations who did not grow up with the multiplicity of modern cartoon characters flooding their drawing rooms as today’s children.
One of these stories, those from that pre-television generation will remember, was about a suicidal Brahmin, who was dejected that he was so poor as his profession did not give him the means to be rich, while all around him that he knew had grown wealthy and prosperous. One day the brooding man was knocked down by a horse carriage of a rich man and lay half-conscious on the road with no will to wake up and live.
A fox saw him and took pity. The animal approached the half conscious man on the ground and woke him up asking him why he was giving up so easily. The Brahmin then told the fox of his misery. The fox was amazed at the man’s despair and asked in bewilderment: “Why are you so defeated? Don’t you have hands? With your hands you can do practically anything? Unlike us, if a thorn enters your sole, you can use your hands to remove it. Unlike us, if your skin is itchy, wherever the itch is, you can scratch and end the irritation. With your hands, you can gather food, cook, stitch clothes, lift things, make tools and do so much more? What is it that you cannot do with your hands so why despair when you are blessed with them?”
The story goes that the fox made the Brahmin see hope and decide to live. The lesson is for every one of us. Never despair, for we have the gift of our hands, and our hands are a miracle. Thank Lucy and her hominid generation then for that revolutionary decision to begin the effort to walk on two legs. It is said there is a half joke amongst evolutionists that mankind exceeded evolution by 10 fingers? How delightfully true this is indeed.
(First published in The Assam Tribune)
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