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Show of Hands:
A Natural History of Sign Language|
As early as 1909, the French sociologist, Robert Hertz, attempted to account for aspects of the cross-cultural right/left dual symbolism by reference to Broca’s work on the neurology of handedness and language. What is striking about this cross-cultural literature is the near universal association of the right with positive and the left with negative attributes. In English, the word dexterous comes directly from the Latin word for right, while sinister is derived from Latin for left. From cross-cultural studies of right/left symbolism compiled by the anthropologist Rodney Needham (1973), we find such widely distributed associations as these:
What resemblance more perfect than that between our two hands! And yet what a striking inequality there is! To the right hand go honors, flattering designations, prerogatives: it acts, orders, and takes. The left hand, on the contrary, is despised and reduced to the role of humble auxiliary: by itself it can do nothing; it helps, it supports, it holds. (1973, 3)How, then, did the hand, especially the right hand, come to occupy such a central place in so many aspects of human behavior? In his influential book, The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, the neurologist Frank Wilson summarizes the essential anatomical adaptations of the primates that made them successful tree dwellers:
At some point during the evolutionary history of the primates, the hominoids, the superfamily to which humans and apes belong, developed a further specialization related to locomotion. This has been called brachiation or brachiation with “knuckle-walking.” This mode of locomotion involves hands with relatively long, hooklike fingers and short thumbs. Apes can thus move through trees by arm-over-arm swinging or by grasping tree limbs from underneath with their hooklike hands and prehensile feet, rather than by running along the upper surfaces of branches like monkeys. On the ground, apes, especially chimps and gorillas that spend much of their time out of the trees, walk on the knuckles of their hands, not the palmar surfaces. However, given their elongated fingers and short thumbs, apes have difficulty bringing their thumbs into full opposition with the palmar surfaces of their fingers—thus, limiting the extent to which they can form precision grips, a hallmark of the human hand.
We should, then, look closely at the anatomy and function of the human hand, within the context of its recent evolutionary history. Very early in the hominid (now often referred to as the hominin) lineage, the lineage leading to modern humans, the evidence concerning the evolution of the hand indicates that the following functional capabilities, characteristic of modern humans, seem to have emerged: