Fists of Fury

An interesting article on the BBC website today, presenting the results of a study on the evolution of the hand. Apparently, uniquely among our relatives, humans have the ability to make a fist, which is optimized for both the force it can deliver to another human, and the protection it offers to the delicate finger bones when doing so, while retaining the precision needed for toolmaking in more peaceful times.

So why do we need it? What evolutionary advantage is gained from being able to beat the brains out of an opponent, especially since we had had weapons to do the same job possibly millions of years before? I think the answer is that when men (and it’s usually men) fight with their fists, they don’t actually beat each other’s brains out. In the animal world, when dominant males battle for supremacy, the fight rarely ends in death, but in one fighter submitting to the other, thus either confirming the current social order or establishing a new one. Like stags butting heads, a fistfight may end in unconsciousness or even concussion, but usually not. It’s more likely to end in one of the opponents being unable to continue, and submitting chimp-style to the now dominant fighter. If there is less at stake, for example the fight is a personal matter, the comrades of the fighters may let them go at it for a bit and then pull them apart before they do too much damage. Steam has been blown off, blood drawn, status established, without permanent damage to either party. If the fight had taken place with the readily-available weapons, one or both may have been lost to the gene pool for good. Weapons have always been, like the six-gun of the old West, the equalizer that allows even the weak to dominate the strong, and in the time of hunters and gatherers society needed its strong men. And so it needed a non-lethal means by which they could settle their differences.

Flashing forward to the present, we can see what happens when evolutionary inhibitions are broken down. The vast majority of murders are committed by young men in just such situations as described above: spontaneous outbursts of rage over often trivial matters, resulting in the need to settle up that minute with the one who has offended them. But now, since guns are freely available to all, and there is often no social stigma against using them, they fire first without thinking of consequences. Another example of how modern society, by indulging all human desires without reference to their original context, makes things worse for everyone.

See also why Homo erectus may not have been a sailor after all.

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