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J R Soc Med. 2004 April; 97(4): 201–202.
PMCID: PMC1079366

The Hand: a Philosophical Inquiry into Human Being

Reviewed by James Le Fanu

Raymond Tallis
364 pp Price £17.99 ISBN 0-7486-1738-4 (h/b)
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003 .

From brushing our teeth first thing in the morning to turning off the bedside lamp last thing at night, the human hand—all would agree—is indispensable, not just for everything we do but for those artifacts with which we do them. Every single drop of human culture, from the stunning paintings in the Chauvet caves of thirty thousand years ago to my writing these words, via every dwelling, temple and cathedral ever built, every piece of jewellery that adorned the human body, every musical instrument to have plucked the human soul, was created by the human hand. And we have the hand, too, to thank for our history, for without it our past would have just slipped away unrecorded into the dark abyss of time.

These achievements of the human hand are obvious enough if we bother to reflect on them, which we rarely do for, as St Augustine observed in his Confessions: ‘While men go abroad to wonder at the height of mountains, the vast compass of the oceans, the circular motion of the stars... yet they pass by themselves without wondering’. It would be an easy summary of Raymond Tallis's book to say that he seeks to reawaken that sense of wonder at ourselves by extolling the marvellous attributes of the hand—which indeed he does, and very effectively too. But Tallis has further ambitions. He is, as those who are acquainted with his previous writings will know, a doughty warrior against the false certainties of our age. The lack of recognition of the hand's unique attributes is, he points out, no mere oversight. Rather it is a necessary consequence of the prevailing scientific ideology—exemplified by the writings of E O Wilson, R Dawkins, D Dennett, et al.—who insist, as of principle, that there can be nothing exceptional about humanity. We are, are we not, nothing but naked apes. Hence, the vast gulf that separates the aptitudes of our hands and those of our nearest cousins—whose cleverest manipulative wheeze is to crack a nut with a stone—can still only ever be one of degree, never of kind. Professor Tallis sets out to show how it is not so.

The success of the human hand lies in its incorporation of three quite distinct attributes into one single structure; it is not just an organ of manipulation, but also an organ of knowledge and communication. The hand acts, it knows, and it speaks. As for the first of these, Tallis draws attention to the remarkable specifications that allow the hand to encompass the two contradictory functions of being both an instrument of great power and yet at the same time one of breathtaking precision. The hand that can hammer, thrust, grasp and crush is the same hand that can thread a needle, play a flute and insert a pipette a fraction of a millimetre in diameter into the axon of a squid. The hand could do none of these things were it not for the second attribute, as an organ of knowledge which through the sense of touch comprehends and explores the external world. This cognitive hand is staggeringly sensitive; just one tap of the fingernail can distinguish between paper, fibre, wood, plastic and steel. It can ‘see’ in the dark and, being at the end of a long highly flexible limb, can also ‘see’ round corners, interrogating objects not just to determine what they are but as a preliminary to action. And as if that were not enough, there is the hand as organ of communication, complementing the voice by conveying all those feelings and emotions that lie beyond words: the hand touches, pets, strokes and caresses, conveying both comforting affection and sexual desire. From here Tallis takes us on a breathtaking tour of the specific attributes of the digits one by one—the stompy opposable thumb that has made us lords of all creation; the index finger that both instructs and admonishes; the middle finger both ‘impudicus’ and stakhanovite of the power grip. Then it is time to move on to the specific attributes of the digits when they dance together in combinations of two, three, four, five or ten—each with its own special talent. And then there is the talking hand, the playful hand, the numerate hand and still its possibilities are not exhausted.

To be sure, the hands of our primate cousins possess similar attributes, albeit in attenuated form: they too can manipulate, learn of the world through touch and express affection by grooming. But why then can the human hand do so much more? It cannot be simply a matter of biology: rather, the human hand must have crossed some sort of metaphysical rubicon to leave our primate cousins far behind on its distant bank—and that rubicon, Tallis suggests, is the ability to make ‘infinite use of finite resources’. The human hand does not merely possess a wide range of grips; it is capable of a limitlessly varied range of grips each of which can be customized to the needs of the moment. Self-evidently, the anatomical differences between the human and primate hands cannot explain the gulf in achievement; rather, as Tallis points out, we should look at ‘what further differences are progressively created out of that difference’.

This liberation from the dead hand (as it were) of evolutionary determinism frees us to contemplate and appreciate the human hand for what it is and does. Tallis conjures up a challenging and endlessly fascinating way of thinking about ourselves that should act as a signpost for the future where we might learn once again to glimpse, as our forebears did, the wonder—and mystery—of ourselves.

Articles from Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine are provided here courtesy of Royal Society of Medicine Press