A Fist of It

Evolution plays favorites. Natural selection favors those that best exploit. Tooth-and-claw Darwinism has its latter-day expression in the economic inequality that pervades the capitalist world. The rich leverage their position to engender the hand-in-glove plutocracy that rules the world, leaving the collective falling further behind. This genteel aggression is a long way from its biological beginnings, though the impact is the same. Hands that evolved to allow hominins to adroitly manipulate the environment with such maladroit intent also afford another employment: less than genteel aggression.

The shape of the human hand distinguishes us from other apes. By comparison, humans have short palms and fingers, but long, strong and mobile thumbs.

These proportions afford the two hand grips that changed the world: the precision grip and the power grip. Holding a pencil characterizes precision grip. Holding something in the full hand, such as a hammer, is the power grip.

But the human hand also uniquely functions for something altogether brutish which other ape hands cannot: a punching fist.

Human fingers can curl back on themselves and leave no empty space inside the fist. This owes to the precise lengths of the component finger bones.

Chimpanzee fingers are too long for this. When a chimp curls its fingers, a gap is left in the middle of the fist, fatally weakening its structure.

Then there is the thumb; well proportioned to buttress a fist. The chimp thumb is neither well placed nor long enough to stiffen its fist.

All told, the human fist is four times as rigid as a chimpanzee facsimile. This allows a punch powerful enough to break bones.

The fist and manipulative hand are adaptations that afforded, above all other life, power and glory. The mind behind such hands could have tempered the power to yield greater glory.

But it was not to be. Instead, those hands would fill the world with every sort of savagery.


Michael H. Morgan & David R. Carrier, “Protective buttressing of the human fist and the evolution of hominin hands,” The Journal of Experimental Biology 216: 236–244 (January 2013).