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Frank R. Wilson: The Hand:
how its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture
(Vintage: 1998)


“When personal desire prompts anyone to learn to do something well with the hands, an extremely complicated process is initiated that endows the work with a powerful emotional charge. People are changed, significantly and irreversibly, it seems, when movement, thought and feeling fuse during the active, long-term pursuit of personal goals. Serious musicians are emotional about their work not simply because they are committed to it, nor because their work demands the public expression of emotion. The musicians’ concern for their hands is a by-product of the intense striving through which they turn them into the essential physical instrument for realization of their own ideas, or the communication of closely held feelings. The same is true of sculptors, wood-carvers, jewellers, jugglers, and surgeons when they are fully immersed in their work.... The word “passion” describes attachments that are this strong. As I came to learn how such attachments are generated, it became the mission of this book to expose the hidden physical roots of the unique human capacity for passionate and creative work. It is now abundantly clear to me that these roots are more than deep, and more than merely ancient. They reach down, and backward in time, past the dawn of human history to the beginning of primate life on this planet.... Indeed, I would go further: I would argue that any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function, the historic origins of that relationship, or the impact of that history on developmental dynamics in modern humans, is grossly misleading and sterile.... [Moreover,] the problem of understanding what the hand is becomes infinitely more complicated, and the inquiry far more difficult to contain, if we try to account for differences in the way people use their hands, or if we try to understand how individuals acquire skill in the use of their hands. When we connect the hands to real life, in other words, we confront the open-ended and overlapping worlds of sensorimotor and cognitive function, and the endless combinations of speed, strength, and dexterity seen in individual human skill and performance.”
(Wilson, pp.5-9)

There exists a deeply troubling divide within literate humanity, at least - a divide both exacerbated by our educational biases and deepened by the increasing complexity of the world we have constructed. I’m speaking here of the division which exists between people whose skills lie in manipulation of the abstract, and those skilled in manipulation of the concrete. Put this way, of course, we can see how closely akin these truly are...yet everything about our world appears to conspire to deepen this divide.

Education remains resolutely abstract - indeed, there is increasing tendency to drop manual skill sets altogether - whilst the world of the arts, once the natural meeting place of craft and concept, has (at least in its “hiart” manifestations) now downgraded craft skills to the status of a little-regarded optional extra. As Frank R. Wilson suggests, these are the signs of a badly skewed culture, dismissive of a genuinely crucial side of human nature, and paying the price for this arrogance, unknowing....


“As I located and interviewed [people] whose careers depended on unusually refined hand control, I found that most could spell out in five minutes the purely procedural demands of their work. But, to understand fully how they had incorporated that knowledge and had turned it into a career was another matter. Each had made a succession of discoveries that had been followed by a strengthening of the desire to learn more and a determination to ‘get it right’ or ‘find the truth’ no matter what the obstacles. This process always resulted in a distinctive personalization of their work, and a growing sense of (and demand for) independence.... [However,] since the Industrial Revolution, parents have expected that organized educational systems will tame and modernize their children and ‘prepare them for life.’ Such is the theory. But education - ritualized, formal education, at least - is not an all-purpose solution to the problem of inexperience and mental immaturity among the young. [and] I was completely unprepared for the frequency with which I heard the people whom I interviewed either dismiss or actively denounce the time they had spent in school. Most of my interview subjects, although I never asked them directly, said quite forcefully that they had clarified their own thinking and their lives as a result of what they were doing with their hands. Not only were most of them essentially self-taught, but a few had engineered their personally unique repertoire of skills and expertise in open retreat from painful experiences in a school system that had dictated the form and content of their education in order to prepare them for a life modelled on conventional norms of success. Apart from a grudging deference to what might be termed the ‘right-brain lobby,’ what is there in our theories of education that respects the biologic principles governing cognitive processing in the brain and behavioral change in the individual. How does, or should, the educational system accommodate the fact that the hand is not merely a metaphor, or an icon for humanness, but often the real-life focal point - the lever or launching pad - of a successful and genuinely fulfilling life.... [And,] once launched, the process of self-education and development never really stops. People are born resourceful and they become skilful and ‘thoughtful’ when they genuinely care about what they are doing. One begins to understand the origins - and learns to appreciate the interdependence - of human skill, intelligence, and vitality by looking at the details, one piece and one person at a time. That is the real story I hope readers will find in these pages.”
(Wilson, pp.11-14)

As a neurologist, whose patients are predominantly the manually-skilled w/hand injuries, Wilson is perhaps ideally placed to comprehend such involvements. Moreover, he is also exceptionally widely and well read - the comparison w/Oliver Sacks comes to mind - and, again, very like that paragon, is both a deeply sympathetic clinician and a searcher for intellectual synthesis...in this case, attempting to bridge the most fundamental divide within the world of human skill. To my mind, he is startlingly successful in this task...


“If it is true that the hand does not merely wave from the end of the wrist, it is equally true that the brain is not a solitary command center, floating free in its cozy cranial cabin. Bodily movement and brain activity are functionally interdependent, and their synergy is so powerfully formulated that no single science or discipline can independently explain human skill or behavior. In fact, it is not clear that what we have asked can be called a scientific question. The hand is so widely represented in the brain, the hands neurologic and biomechanical elements are so prone to spontaneous interaction and reorganization, and the motivations and efforts which give rise to individual use of the hand are so deeply and widely rooted, that we must admit we are trying to explain a basic imperative of human life. Ultimately, this ‘meditation’ seeks to juxtapose and integrate three quite different perspectives on the role of the hand in human life:

1. the anthropological and evolutionary perspective: where the human hand came from and how it acquired the repertoire of movements that have given it a central role in human life and survival;

2. the biomechanical and physiological perspective: the engineer’s view of the specialized structure and function of a forelimb no longer used for weight-bearing and whose terminal configuration is adapted for the control of external objects;

3. the neurobehavioral and developmental perspective: how the dynamic interactions of hand and brain are developed and refined, and how that process relates to the unique character of human thought, growth, and creativity.”
(Wilson, p.10)

And, although Wilson considers the third of these tasks the most crucial, he certainly does not neglect the first two. In fact, as we shall see, he tightly integrates functional and evolutionary anthropological approaches with great skill, and uses these to frame the stories of the manually-skilled within the context of deep time...making clear just how old these marvellously varied skills are, in essence - and how foolish we are to neglect them...


“Dancers, acrobats, and skateboarders seem to be fully evolved biomechanically and neurologically as bipeds, while others have retained an aerial bias in the hominid repertoire of automatic balancing reflexes [and] the latter model of the biped brain lacks a full repertoire of automatic responses in the legs to the sudden shifting of a load above the centre of gravity. Have you ever noticed that people who trip look like figures in Chagall paintings...clutching for the branch that was left behind eons ago. The result of this outmoded reaction is almost invariably a broken arm. What I am suggesting is that the human brain, especially with respect to the deeply ingrained patterns of motor control upon which survival in the trees depended for millions of years, continues to be genetically transmitted with a copy of a locomotor strategy more suited to movement on a limb than on a wide, flat surface. Our distant ancestors made no effort to carry great weights with the body; during a fall, all four limbs could be deployed to snag a branch...[and,] in fact, falling was a normal mode of locomotion.”
(Wilson, pp.77-8)

“Because of the body’s virtually limitless freedom to employ convenient combinations of muscle activity to achieve a desired movement...a specific solution to the problem comes about only because the central nervous system has the capacity to call upon skeletal muscles the way a commanding general calls on his troops, combining the available forces to meet certain tactical objectives as they arise, and continually recombining them into ad hoc working groups based on his perceptions of what each can do and what each mission will require.... This flexibility may seem to be an ideal arrangement, but (just as with a real army) it comes at a very high price...a nightmarish challenge for the nervous system.”
(Wilson, p.89)

“Brachiation may have begun simply as a biomechanical accommodation to increasing size and weight, or to the advantages of suspended feeding...but the resulting increased mobility in the upper arm effectively permitted the animal to locate either hand virtually anywhere...[and] the brain must have responded to this purely biomechanical change by increasing the complexity of its representation of the hand and arm in space.... In sum, we must infer that brachiation placed an enormous burden on the brain’s kinesthetic monitoring and spacial computing power, since there were so many new places the hands could actually be while they were doing their job. Eventually, there must also have been countless new tasks for the arms and hands that required differentiated use of the right and left hands, as well as the capacity for refined coordination of the two hands during bimanual tasks.”
(Wilson, p.29)

The evolutionary story Wilson tells is, in part, a familiar one - yet it is much, much richer than those offered by palaeoanthropologists in this area, and filled with details that help make real sense of what little we know about hominid evolution. Just as Kingdon’s Lowly Origin used functional anatomy, biogeography and ecology to challenge and recast our understanding of our upright status, so too Wilson’s specialist knowledge proves essential to comprehending the hand in human evolution. Combined with Merlin Donald’s Origins of the Modern Mind, these books offer us our very best guides to the sheer complexity of the factors involved in human evolution, presenting a badly-needed corrective to the just-so savannah stories we are used to. Moreover, Wilson - as I said - is an exceptional synthesist, and makes the work of both Merlin Donald and Henry Plotkin central to his evolutionary story...building upon their innovations and fleshing out their models with the insights which come from his specialist knowledge. The result is a crucial part of our story:


“When the australopithecines started walking upright, the upper limb had not changed much, and it is unlikely that the control mechanisms were different, either. Had there been any major changes, you might suspect that the arm was destined to be downgraded - either to a structure with a merely ornamental function, or to a shrunken version, possibly like the forelimbs of the kangaroo.... But the hominid arm did not wither, either anatomically or functionally. Why? One possible answer is that the brachiating arm (unlike the forelimb of mammals lacking its unique experience and capabilities) had already secured  a major ‘presence’ for itself in the brain - that is, its complex functions had come to be widely represented and ‘networked’ into expanded sensorimotor systems within the central nervous system.”
(Wilson, p.62)

“Mary Marzke, a physical anthropologist at Arizona State University, has spent a great deal of time looking at the hand and wrist bones of Australopithecus afarensis. Professor Marzke points out that although Lucy does have an opposable thumb, other primates also have this feature. Chimps and monkeys, in fact, are quite good at bringing the thumb to the side of the index finger. What they don’t do well (as Lucy herself could not do) is bring the thumb tip all the way across the hand to the fourth and fifth fingers. Also, neither the apes nor Lucy flex the fingers on the ulnar side of the hand (the side with the little finger) toward the base of the thumb, in the movement known as ‘ulnar opposition.’ We humans do this without the slightest sense of marvel whenever we grasp the handle of a hammer, a golf club, or a tennis racket and prepare to take a swing. The advantages in Lucy’s hand are nearly impossible to appreciate without studying her wrist bones...[but] taken together, these changes move the radial (or thumb) side of Lucy’s hand dramatically toward the twentieth century. The apparent functional advantages of the changes are:

* the thumb, index and middle fingers can form a ‘three-jawed chuck,’ which means the hand can conform to, grasp, and firmly retain irregular solid shapes (such as stones);

* finer control can be exerted over objects held between the thumb and the tips of the index and middle fingers;

* rocks can be held within the hand to pound repeatedly on other hard objects (nuts, for example), or to dig for roots, because the new wrist structure is able to absorb (dissipate) the shock of repeated hard strikes more effectively than the ape hand....

[As well,] she could have thrown overarm because her shoulder had the capacity for full brachiation (including forearm supination), her hand was capable of a ‘three-jawed chuck’ grip, and her pelvis and its musculature permitted a whipsaw movement of the full axis of the body during the windup and throwing motion.”
(Wilson, pp.24-7)

“The accelerated development of the hand (and of the brain supporting its new repertoire of movements) in Homo seems not so much a de novo invention as the completion of what had already been worked out in the rest of the arm (and the shoulder) prior to our arrival on the ground.... If the australopithecine hand ventured out...less than fully prepared for the challenges it would meet, the shoulder and arm and their neurologic support systems were very likely already well ahead of the game...[albeit] there were other changes that had to be made to capitalize fully on this ballistic potential, most prominently an advanced visual-motor control system. And catch up is exactly what the hand (and brain) did. Very quickly - on an evolutionary time scale, that is - the hand and brain not only met but began to redefine the demands and possibilities of a life in which forelimbs had been freed of the obligation to support body weight.”
(Wilson, pp.78-9)

“It is actually quite easy to see that the establishment of a lateralized habitual upper-limb skill could have conferred a critical survival advantage on the australopithecines...and that it must have occurred if marksmanship was their basic weapon.... For most, if not all, primates, voluntary sequential movements of the limbs, no matter how complex, are executed with increasing fluency and precision the more they are repeated.... [Moreover,] the control of [such] an invariant sequence of interacting muscle contractions requires nothing less than perfect regulation of the start and stop times of all these events, which in turn determine the movement of each of the involved limb segments, and which regulate even their contractile state through the course of the movement and at its endpoint.... Apparently, regulating the timing of all the necessary ‘on’ and ‘off’ switching is a large part of what is so difficult in perfecting movements that are rapid, brief, and (of necessity) extremely accurate. Perhaps, the control problem is further complicated by the need to segregate commands sent to proximal limb segments from potentially incongruous or conflicting commands simultaneously directed to distal segments. Small wonder the move demands practice.”
(Wilson, pp.152-5)

Once we take the trouble to add the functional anatomy to the story, we can see much more clearly just how the shoulder - and then the hand - effectively led the brain into new evolutionary territory, with varieties of throwing (as William Calvin has argued) almost certainly providing the leading advantage. And so, by the time real brain expansion occurred w/ergaster and erectus, there were cogent survival reasons driving it, as well as the likely forces of sexual, social, and cultural selection making multiple uses of all that new neocortex. But manual demands led the way...


“Throwing may well have become more of an attack skill in Lucy than it ever could be in chimps, but a major improvement in clubbing had to await changes in the ulnar side of the wrist and hand, which came after the time of A. afarensis. The trick of ulnar opposition...permits a stick to be seated tightly in the hand, and oriented along the axis of the arm, so that the swinging radius of arm-plus-stick (and, therefore, the force of a blow) increases.... A second effect of ulnar opposition can be seen in an improved precision grip...[only now involving] all five digits in the fine control of small objects. This one ‘small’ modification, in other words, would have greatly enlarged the functional potential of the hand at both ends of the existing behavioral repertoire, opening the possibility for  both a more combative and a more digitally dextrous individual.”
(Wilson, pp.27-8)

“Structure and function are interdependent and co-evolutionary. The brain keeps giving the hand new things to do, and new ways of doing what it already knows how to do. In turn, the hand affords the brain new ways of approaching old tasks, and the possibility of undertaking and mastering new tasks. That means the brain, for its part, can acquire new ways of representing and defining the world.”
(Wilson, p.146)

“It is likely that sometime during its stewardship of the genetic lineage of Homo, erectus completed the final revisions to evolution’s remodelling of the hand, opening the door to an enormously augmented range of movements, and the possibility of an unprecedented extension of manual activities. As a collateral event, the brain was laying the foundations of cognitive and communicative capacity. I would not suggest that a tiny modification of this ancient pentadactyl structure by itself closed, or even catalyzed the closure of the narrowing gap between Merlin Donald’s mimetic culture and its successor, the mythic culture. Rather, this new hand reflected a modification of the primary heuristic, and brought with it the opportunity for a new class of situational knowledge based on as yet unexplored and undefined use of the hand.... Absent what preceded it, surrounded it, and was still to come, it would have been neither burr nor spur. But, with the advantage of hindsight, we can guess that events following this anatomic change conspired to produce a second iteration of Plotkin’s secondary heuristic: ‘manual intelligence,’ just plain ‘hand smarts.’... [For] the handyman’s hand was more than just an explorer and discoverer of things in the objective world; it was a divider, a joiner, an enumerator, a dissector, and an assembler.... [And] there is growing evidence that H. sapiens acquired in its new hand not simply the mechanical capacity for refined manipulative and tool-making skills but, as time passed, an impetus to the redesign, or reallocation, of the brain’s circuitry.... A new physics would eventually have to come into this brain, a new way of registering and representing the behavior of objects moving and changing under the control of the hand. It is precisely such a representational system - a syntax of cause and effect, of stories and experiments, each having a beginning, a middle, and an end - that one finds at the deepest levels of the organization of human language.”
(Wilson, pp.58-60)

And, as might be expected of a writer with his rare breadth of concern, Wilson has quite a bit to contribute to our understanding of language, and its evolution, albeit his proposals fit comfortably within the approach most associated with Merlin Donald and Stephen Mithen. Still, he has his own (manually-creative) take upon this area, and his arguments are both unusual, and important...


Praxis refers to a heterogeneous class of movements in humans that, by virtue of motivated planning and rehearsal, exploit novel biomechanical (structural) modifications in the human hand, in order to gain precise and extended control of external objects. Because of their intentionality and the precision (or stereotypy) that arises through rehearsal, these movements become iconic. The praxic movement, in other words, is perforce a sign for the act which it accomplishes, irrespective of the communicative intent of the doer.... It has long been agreed that there are two qualitatively different forms of skilled, representational movement, best exemplified by the differences between gesture and sign. But no one has ever suggested that there might be a whole other class of representational movements - those imbedded in highly practised movements which are meaningful, but neither gestures nor signs.... Musical skill provides the clearest example and the cleanest proof of the existence of a whole class of self-defined, personally distinctive motor skills with an extended training and experience base, strong ties to the individual’s emotional and cognitive development, strong communicative intent, and very high performance standards.... [But] to the cognitive scientist and the neurologist alike, the highly trained, creative hand remains almost entirely unseen, and unrepresented in the thinking of clinical and theoretical neurology.... What do we imagine actually happens in the brain during a painter’s lengthy apprenticeship, and during her subsequent period of development? Why do we fail to see that any advanced physical skill has its own internal ‘logic’ with specific minimal operational characteristics (limited input sources and output channels, a limited range and type of timing operations and calculating operations), and the freedom to be modified over time based upon experience? Language and music fit, but are not the only examples.”
(Wilson, pp.204-8)

“We lose ourselves in the details. We find the right and left hemispheres respond to certain challenges in distinctive ways - one does a job faster than the other, or better, or more reliably - and we conclude that this hemisphere is specialized for that function. It is important and useful (maybe) that we make these discoveries, but they are true only as artifacts of the tests we devise. Once the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere join forces, our attention, or perspective, must shift to take account of that unique combination and a new set of consequences. Language is not just words, semantics, syntax. It is also melody, and sometimes, it is dance. Sometimes, as in the deaf, it is a silent dance of the hands. It is a voice, a face, and the words between the lines.... [For] the strength of a biological system cannot be judged independent of context.”
(Wilson, p.307)

To this point, I have concentrated on the evolutionary story, sketching out Wilson’s arguments in this area, which are both complex and extremely well-supported. But this is only one of the many strengths of this remarkable book, and probably not the one most of its readers would first think of. That award would go to the remarkable stories of the manually-skilled - the puppeteer, the juggler, the rock-climber, the chef, the jeweller, the mechanic, the magician/surgeon, the musician, and the deaf signer - which both frame and illustrate the evolutionary/functional arguments with a rare degree of insight...


“Almost all physical skill flows from the maturation of motor skills under the guidance of both visual and kinesthetic monitoring...[and] both the hand and eye develop as sense organs through practice, which means that the brain teaches itself to synthesize visual and tactile perceptions by making the hand and eye work together.... The brain actively orients the the receptors in the eye or the hand toward a target of interest, and then moves them precisely during a process of exploration. [Moreover,] the resulting image constructed by the brain must, of necessity, be based both on the messages from retinal and/or skin receptors, and on the record of guided eye or limb movements occurring during the collection of the sensory data.... One extremely important difference between the eyes and the upper limbs as movable explorers has to do with the biomechanical (hence ‘computational’) complexity of moving the sensor (retina or fingertip) to the target of interest. The eye, assuming the head to be in a favorable position, need only rotate toward the target to bring light from it to the retina. The hand, however, is located at the end of a complex biomechanical linkage and must actually get to the target to be touched [while] the body may first have to be moved toward the target. Once there...the reaching arm has wide latitude in the combination of joint angles and contraction-relaxation patterns.”
(Wilson, pp.97-8)

“The right hand is the tool holder, and the left hand is the manipulator. You have to hold the tool exactly so that it does the same thing every time. You rotate the work to the place where it should be.... Learning how to control the tools used in jewelry-making can take as little as two or three months. And it takes in quite a few senses. It takes in the sense of hearing, as well as the physical sense of how a tool is touching something else. For example, with a torch you are concentrating on heating something without melting it, so you’re visually focused tightly on what’s going on there. But you are also sensing the sound the torch is making. You can hear a change in the mixture of oxygen and gas, depending on where the torch is. Of course, vision plays a very big part, but there is also the physical feeling when the tool you’re holding is in the proper position and is making the proper contact. When you’re filing or hammering, there’s also the sound. Hammering on a piece of metal is like ringing a bell. A person needs to have feeling for all of these things. You know, tools are very sensual things, and using them can be. The filing, the polishing, drawing is very physical, sensual. Filing is almost like petting a cat.”
(George McLean, quoted in Wilson, p.142)

“An extremely important dissent from the inferior-superior and ‘just different’ theories [of handedness] was published in 1987 by French psychologist Yves Guiard...[in which he argued] the question should not be which hand is dominant, but how the two hands interact, or complement each other’s  actions in a given task.... In writing - as consistent a unilateral task as is known - Guiard showed that the nondominant hand plays a complementary, though largely covert, role by continuously repositioning the paper in anticipation of pen movement.... Looking beneath complementarity as a principle, Guiard went on to show that the physical characteristics of movement, and the requisite sensory control mechanisms supporting each, were different. Specifically, movements of the dominant hand tended to be lower in excursion (amplitude) and faster in repetition rates...[while] the nondominant hand...‘frames’ the movement of the dominant hand: it sets and confines the spacial context in which the ‘skilled’ movement will take place.... Finally, said Guiard, the framing, stabilizing activity begins in one hand before the action of the other member of the pair. In summary...the left hand knows what the right hand is planning, and the right hand knows what the left hand just did.... [Moreover,] the dominant hand’s performance is micrometric, rehearsed, and for the most part internally driven (‘pre-programmed) [whereas] the performance of the nondominant hand is macrometric, improvisational, and externally driven.”
(Wilson, pp.159-62)

And the virtues of this remarkable book certainly don’t stop there. I have yet to mention the compelling theory of heterotechnic groupings (everything from makers of stone tools to teenage car enthusiasts), his resolutely unfashionable coupling of work and pleasure (yet another neglect within our dominant culture), or the insightful arguments re object and language handling parallels which nicely complement and extend the interpersonal approach of developmental psychologists such as Hobson, and the educational theories of Kieran Egan. As such, it highlights a general strength of the work I have so far neglected. That is, throughout the text - amidst all its other concerns - Wilson never loses sight of the other dimension of the historical, that is...the developmental:


“The long march toward physical and mental agility begins when the infant is still on its back, where it must remain until the muscles of the neck can hold the neck still while the eyes search and study...[leading] to perceptual stabilization of the visual world. [Moreover,] the coupling of hand and eye movement is an enormously complicated learning task in which the child must be intensively engaged before it can ever hope to pry its bottom off the floor.... [Furthermore,] before the fingers begin to work independently, two critical and apparently separate events in neuromuscular development are necessary: the arm must have learned to move to a target under the guidance of the eye, and the hand must have learned to orient and shape itself in preparation for grasping the target. The first of these stages is normally complete before the age of five months, and the second before the age of ten months; after that, the hand is ready for a lifetime of exploration.”
(Wilson, pp.98-9)

“Very gradually, as work progressed on this book, I came to realize that an unexpected dialogue was developing between two sets of information I had been considering.... The dialogue was an exchange between the experiences of individual learners, and certain large-scale constructs of cognitive and behavioral science. Serge Percelly’s description of the pragmatics of juggling, worked out almost entirely on his own, ‘speaks to’ the findings of a research group in motor control and computer science at MIT. George McLean’s insights about bimanual control of tools, gained from his remarkable experience following the loss of four fingers of his dominant hand, echo a research laboratory’s hard-won discoveries concerning hemispheric specialisations for dominant-nondominant hand control. [And] Dorothy Taubman and Patrick O’Brien deduce important principles of action of the small muscles of the hand, and challenge neurologists who consider musician’s (and writer’s) cramp to be a consequence of brain disease.... Obviously, there can and should be a bidirectional character to this ‘dialogue between sets’ I have been describing. But it is in fact remarkably difficult to find examples of reinforcement of the small-scale particularities of individual learning from the larger world of science. That is, it does not seem that we have yet learned how to apply systematically to individuals what we know from biology about the nature of human learning.”
(Wilson, pp.286-7)

“There will continue to be individuals whose accomplishments will astonish the experts, by proving to be useful or even critically important, despite all predictions to the contrary. We can neither fully anticipate our future needs (what we will regard as talent or genius), nor fully orchestrate a survival strategy for ourselves. We can, will, and should do both of these to the best of our abilities, but we will never beat evolution at the game that created us. Therefore, we must make provision for those amongst us who hear a different beat, and are compelled to march to it.... [Moreover,] although we are different, we almost certainly benefit by capitalizing on our differences. The knowledge to do this, if it exists, must exist collectively, as a distributed, heritable trait outside the individual, but within the community itself.... Might we detect this community trait by gene testing? I doubt it. Can we duplicate its effectiveness by aptitude testing, educational policy, and social engineering, or stuffing our children with vitamins, surrounding them with interactive toys, and badgering them about getting into Ivy League colleges? What do you think? ...Understanding or reengineering the brain will not save us; neither will sitting our children in front of computers when they are three years old, so that they can skip the ‘pointless’ experiences of childhood, during which they find out what a baseball, or a puppet, or a toy car, or a swing can do to their body, and vice versa.... The fully computerized kid may turn out to be just like us, or strikingly different, as a consequence of having replaced haptics with vision as the primary arbiter of reality, and having substituted virtual baseball for the old-fashioned kind at an age when the brain’s sensorimotor system hasn’t settled on the time constraints it will use for its own perceptual-motor operations.... I am not surprised that we are so eager as a society to welcome the Internet into our public schools. I am a little surprised that we are so ready to say goodbye to the playground and the books in the school library.”
(Wilson, pp.289-310)

Frank R. Wilson’s The Hand is a truly marvellous book, juggling evolutionary, technical and experiential perspectives from a variety of practitioners to provide us with that very rare thing - a comprehensive understanding of just how, and why, our hands are so important to us... By marshalling such a startling variety of perspectives, as well, Wilson’s work provides a standing reproach to most scholarship, bound (as it is) more by disciplinary niceties than by the real demands of its subject matter...let alone the real needs and wants of any potentially wider readership.

By reuniting hand and mind - not to mention brain and body - in such a comprehensive fashion, Wilson has performed a critically-important task, which is even more needed today than it was in the past. Any evolutionary and/or developmental account which neglects this question - as too many sadly do - is, as Wilson convincingly argues, profoundly inadequate. But the relevance of this work does not stop there... For there is also our narrow-minded & politicized educational approach to be considered, not to mention our understandings of work, play, and, in fact, the shape of human life itself. Wilson addresses all of these in this remarkable book, which is undoubtedly one of the most important of our times.


“We begin life with our parents as the first teachers, learning through early exposure to toys, language, music, and other children and adults. We perceive change in ourselves through countless interactions, formal and informal, with others to whom we are drawn or driven: teachers, relatives, friends, and rivals. As emerging adults reaching toward the heady goal of independence, we seek to match ourselves to an exemplary archetype, and through emulation of this person (his or her principles and work) we are directed toward a life of productive work, companionship, and reward. The socialization that formal education strives so hard to inculcate is, as Kieran Egan argues, actually built into this process as we increase our familiarity and facility with tools (hand-held and cognitive) offered to us.... No wonder learning is so hard to control, so easy both to direct and to misdirect. It is brain and hand and eye and ear and skin and heart; it is self alone and self-in-community, it is general and specific, large and small. The interaction of brain and hand, and the growth of their collaborative relationship throughout a life of successive relationships with all manner of other selves - musical, building, playing, hiking, cooking, juggling, riding, artistic selves - not only signifies but proves that what we call learning is a quintessential mystery of human life. It demands energy, but produces more than it consumes.... It marks the fusion of what is physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual in us...[and] is reshaped continuously as hand and brain vitalize one another, and the capacity to learn grows continuously as we fashion our own personal laboratory for making things.... It may be that a greater appreciation by parents and teachers of these facts would bring formal learning and self-directed ‘life learning’ into a more mutually reinforcing relationship. It may also be that the most powerful tactic available to any parent or teacher who hopes to awaken the curiosity of a child, and who seeks to join the child who is ready to learn, is simply to head for the hands.”
(Wilson, pp.294-6)


John Henry Calvinist