Head and Hands

As the father of a two-year-old, I face many challenges.  One of the most persistent and difficult has been getting my little man to stop throwing.  For the longest time, his first (and only) impulse on catching sight of a small object was to pick it up and hurl it in a random direction, purely to see how well it flew.  It took a long time, and a lot of reminders, to get him to the point where he is now: he only forgets and starts chucking things around when we are not present, or when he’s suddenly distracted by something.  So, once or twice a day, that we know of.  It helps a bit to channel the urge by letting him go outside and throw his balls or his Frisbee.

In the course of this long quest for civilized behavior, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the causes of such a deeply ingrained urge.  I’ve concluded that, in essence, I’m fighting evolution here: he has a strong urge to learn how to throw hard and accurate, and we are frustrating it when we tell him no.  And that urge exists for a very good reason.  For millions of years, our ancestors needed every hand in the group to pummel the snot out of any large predator that showed its fanged mug around their territory.  Even when predators were not a risk, it would have been an essential hunting skill for a pre-archery group.

At any rate, my son learns quickly; I showed him how to throw the Frisbee less than a month ago, and he straightaway adapted the sideways technique to double his distance with a ball (still working on doing it accurately).  If my boy’s desire to hurl were indulged completely, I imagine that by age five he would be able to throw a rock with sufficient force to knock a full-grown man unconscious.  If you do not believe me, you clearly are not the parent of a little boy.  Perhaps girls do it too; I don’t know.

This train of thought always leads me on to the wonderful utility of the human hand.  Not too long ago, I read a little popular-science blurb somewhere that said the ability to form a fist was a key step in our evolution.  I’m somewhat skeptical, just because the hand is so wonderfully versatile for peaceful use, and it’s not like the African savannah doesn’t have plenty of blunt objects to pick up and hit with.  Still, there’s no denying that fists are handy tools, if you don’t happen to have anything to throw or swing or poke with.  That the same appendage can be used to harvest food in a variety of ways, create tools, feel around in the dark, and even form a kind of club in a pinch is really quite incredible.  Not to mention the many weird uses we’ve come up with for it since we ran out of predators to stone–like typing blog entries.

In fact, the hand is almost half the secret to our success; the brain is the other almost-half (I give the voice-box and tongue ten percent credit).  But we don’t credit the hand as often as we should.  We are, after all, Homo sapiens, thinking man.  Homo habilis, handy man, was an earlier stage in hominid evolution, and it’s easy to forget that the hands had to come first.  Plenty of other animals have very high intellect–not quite human, but very high–but that intellect is perpetually frustrated by their limited ability to manipulate their environment.  The common crow is quite clever, as is the dolphin.  Both are successful in their own way, but with little more than a beak to work with, they can’t do anything too incredible.  Probably either one could conceive of a number of simple tools that neither has the means to build or wield.

I don’t know when, or why, we began to value the mind over the hands.  I’m going to guess the Industrial Revolution had something to do with it, at least in its current extreme form, though some might just be ancient holdovers of literate class prejudice against craftsmen.  Because today, people who work with their hands–plumbers, mechanics, welders, etc.–are all distinctly lower class.  If you go into a vocational school, it must be because you couldn’t hack it taking regular academic coursework.  This is starting to change, I think because we now have a lot of barely-employable English majors like me resentfully eying their happy, busy electricians.  We don’t have enough electricians these days, I hear, and machinists are a dying breed too.  I don’t believe we’ve ever had quite as many engineers as we really needed, and they’re more on the intellectual side of things.

Part of the problem might be that people who work well with their hands are seldom especially quick with their tongues (though that could be a result of the modern class distinction).  Partly it’s probably laziness; nobody wants to tug at greasy lug nuts, or climb up a tall pole in blazing heat to risk getting electrocuted.  Being a lawyer sounds much more appealing, and the pay is much higher.  When they can get a job, that is–our law schools churn out far more graduates than we have actual use for.  Many schools have even taken to hiring back their own graduates, through a subsidiary nonprofit, to boost their listings of grads who were employed within a year of leaving school.

Still we all rush to be lawyers.  Meanwhile, I regularly see ads in the listings for electrician’s assistants.  Some of the more desperate add, “or electrician’s apprentices.”  I’ve been tempted, to be honest, but then my wife tells me I am not allowed to fry myself and leave her with two children.  So I sigh, and go back to the “office assistant” listings . . .

(I’ve strayed a bit from religion, I know–this is turning into a “what is the Red Sheep obsessed with today?” blog.  Hopefully it’s still interesting to someone)


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