back to article Opposable thumbs for FISTS, not finesse, say bioboffins

A pair of researchers at the University of Utah have published a paper arguing that our hands did not evolve merely so that our ancestors could perform delicate tasks, but also so that the males of the species could knock the crap out of one another in competition for mates. "There are people who do not like this idea, but it …


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  1. Pete 2 Silver badge

    broken metacarpals

    > higher pressure when hitting with a fist,

    If hands did evolve for fighting, rather than tool carrying (or to whack other people with large sticks) you would expect that the bones in the hand and wrist would be strengthened, due to natural selection, so that they were less likely to break (known as a boxers fracture) when used to thump an opponent.

    Since this evolutionary trait did not develop - people still break bones in their hands when they hit someone, unless they've been trained properly on how to hit - this explanation does sound unlikely.

    A better explanation for why humans have shorter fingers and thumbs is surely so that its easier to send TXTs.

    1. Alister

      Re: broken metacarpals

      A better explanation for why humans have shorter fingers and thumbs is surely so that its easier to send TXTs.

      Indeed, the next evolutionary step will undoubtedly be the joining together and weakening of the fingers, and an extension and increased dexterity of the thumb.

      1. Dan Paul

        Re: broken metacarpals... Next Evolutionary step...

        The next step in Humanity's evelution is that we become hunchbacked, nearsighted, flipper handed, deaf/mutes with specialized thumbs that each have ten litttle fingers just the size of chiclet type cell phone keys.

        All the better to communicate with the opposite sex.

        1. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

          Re: broken metacarpals... Next Evolutionary step...

          Humanity will split into several evolutionary branches. A claw-like appendage with one, two or three spare digits for gripping a mouse, depending on whether one follows the OSX, Windows or Linux paths. Or the requisite number of tentacles needed to perform the (patented) touch screen gestures of either the iOS or Android subspecies.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: broken metacarpals

      Alternatively, the fighting advantage gained through thicker bones would mean you lose some of the advantages gained through dexterity.

      It would be a mistake to think a single attribute would determine the hands shape.

    3. Mark 183

      Re: broken metacarpals

      A "boxers fracture" is usually a fracture of the 5th (sometimes the 4th) metacarpal i.e. the one for your pinkie finger.

      The usual cause is poor punching technique and/or a relatively weak wrist causing the fist to "roll" on impact and subjecting these weaker metacarpals to a transverse force ultimately resulting in a break.

      I Am Not A Doctor but I do have some experience of being on the receiving end of a few metacarpal fractures on both hands

    4. Lewis Mettler

      to send TXTs? unlikely

      But the common availability of voice-to-text programs prevented the evolutionary development over the last thousand years or so. No need to use your thumbs because you could just talk.

  2. Grikath

    Only a couple of things wrong in his assumptions...

    1) All mammals living in social groups are agressive within the group, which is usually dominance-related. In fact, agressive display before actually resorting to violence ( which has a tendency to be detrimental to the individuals' health and thus his further potential for growth within the group) is pretty much universal in all socially organisedvertebrate groups.

    The great apes are actually *far* better at display than actual violence.

    2) Only idiots amd rookies punch something in the way described in the article without added protection. It is nigh-on the perfect way to seriously damage your hand in many unpleasant and potentially debilitating ways.

    1. JetSetJim Silver badge

      Re: Only a couple of things wrong in his assumptions...

      I seem to recall reading articles that notes that the incidence of injury rose on the introduction of boxing gloves into the sport as the head now became a viable target. In bare-knuckle fights it was more common to strike the torso than the head because of the risk of damaging your hand.

  3. JetSetJim Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Climbing trees

    Didn't we stop climbing trees? Chimps still seem to be rather good at it and the longer fingers/palms would seem very well suited for gripping branches and this would naturally continue to evolve to the optimum hand layout. Perhaps the original proto-hand did not have quite such an elongated structure.

    IANAEvolutionary Biologist

  4. Steve the Cynic

    Re: broken metacarpals

    Re: boxer's fracture

    Boxer's fracture is more properly called "brawler's fracture" (and it sometimes is) because boxers are trained to punch correctly even without gloves.

    Brawler's fracture is a transverse break of usually the fifth metacarpal (behind the little finger) because this bone isn't strong enough to withstand the transverse impact forces, unlike the second and third metacarpals (behind the index and middle fingers). Boxers will hit you (if using bare fists) with the strong part of their hands, while a Saturday-night beer-fueled punch from a random idiot will often hit with the ring and little fingers, and therefore break bones in the puncher's own hand.

    If you want to know why I know all this, it's because I broke my fifth metacarpal in a martial arts class. 'Course I did it differently, and got a spiral fracture because of twisting forces. That was an interesting experience, but one I aim to not repeat.

  5. Ikoth


    Friday & Saturday nights in most town centers.

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch

      Re: QED

      Or to mangle a Billy Bragg quote... "something that every football fan knows, it only takes five fingers [if you include an opposable thumb as the fifth, it seems] to form a fiiiist"

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The true function of human hands

    I think this report proves, at least in the case of University of Utah researchers, that the true function of human hands is for typing daft self-publicising press releases and for wanking.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The true function of human hands

      Well played, sir – and may I add that the shorter palm and fingers of the human hand makes a firm wanking grip somewhat more effective? And when in the evolutionary cycle was lubricant invented, hmm? Did early hominids find themselves somewhat raw, post-wank? Or was some prehistoric lube – aloe, perhaps? – used. Enquiring minds...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The true function of human hands

        Early man didn't wait long to invent lubricant. Prehistoric lube was a farrago of bog, tar, and twiggy peat. Twiggy because, then as now, man found a rough wank more satisfying, and permitted more time between wankings for hunting then or going to the office today.

  7. Some Beggar
    IT Angle

    I used to box as a yoof as well as playing both codes of rugby.

    But I'm pretty sure I'd have come off a very poor second in a fist fight with any of the other great apes who don't carry these supposed fighters' fists. And probably with our cousin Neanderthals as well (or "Warrington Rugby League" as they are currently known).

    Incidentally, in stark contrast to your title and subtitle, the article actually says "Manual manipulation is central to human behavior and has clearly played a crucial role in the evolution of the human hand."

    I do wish you wouldn't arbitrarily re-interpret people's research like this. It makes you look like the Daily Mail.

    1. Some Beggar

      Re: I used to box as a yoof as well as playing both codes of rugby.

      Was that instant thumbs down from a Warrington fan by any chance? I didn't know you lot had learned how to internet yet.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: I used to box as a yoof as well as playing both codes of rugby.

        ...or indeed how to point thumbs?

    2. Lamont Cranston

      Re: I used to box as a yoof as well as playing both codes of rugby.


      This research is all well and good, but you won't catch me punching a gorilla, anytime soon.

    3. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

      Re: I used to box as a yoof as well as playing both codes of rugby.

      "But I'm pretty sure I'd have come off a very poor second in a fist fight with any of the other great apes who don't carry these supposed fighters' fists."

      That's just a matter of a large mismatch in strength. Although the average human outweighs a chimpanzee, the chimp has several times a man's strength and could do much more damage with the same moves. However, if you should find yourself pinned by a larger animal and not yet eviscerated, your best move would be to punch said animal squarely in the snout. That's a sensitive spot and not the sort of pain they are used to when combating those of their own species, so it could scare them off. If not, odds are you won't live much longer anyway.

  8. Richard IV

    A title should not contradict it's article

    (Unless it's Pretend You're The Daily Mail Day, in which case I apologise)

    It's the palm and finger size relative to the thumb that's for fists, not the opposable thumb in and of itself.

    Notice how the chimp has opposable thumbs but is rubbish at fists.

    1. Steve Knox

      Re: A title should not contradict it's article

      A title should not contain it's where its is required.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: A title should not contradict it's article

        @Steve Knox

        I'm afraid that both of Richard IV's use of "it's" (i.e. short for "it is") are correct; long hand versions below:

        (Unless it is Pretend You're The Daily Mail Day, in which case I apologise)

        It is the palm and finger size relative to the thumb that's for fists, not the opposable thumb in and of itself.

        1. Pete Spicer

          Re: A title should not contradict it's article

          Except not the one that was being complained about, where 'a title should not contradict it's article', as that should be the possessive form of its, not the contraction.

          Beer, because it's too late in the day not to have had the first.

        2. Steve Knox

          Re: A title should not contradict it's article

          @AC. The body of Richard IV's post uses it's correctly. The title does not. That's why I referred to the title.

          1. Richard IV

            Re: A title should not contradict it's article

            I'd claim foreshadowing of Daily Mail mode, but I'd be lying ;(

  9. Beavercheese

    "woz you lookin at my girlfriend?"

    Funny, I always thought that the only reason that our particular species of human was able to rise to the pecking order as it did or currently “dominate” other species was in the fact that we had evolved enough mental capacity to understand that a stick could be used as a viable weapon, fire making or hunter gatherer tool and not just for scratching your own arse or amusingly flinging your flaming faecal matter at the cave wall.

    I am sure that before this (and still during) we probably did go around punching or slapping the shit out of each other.

    Anyone - no matter their perceived level of civilisation will resort to violence if pushed far enough or if the need arises to protect or dominate and this has always been a natural state.

    Even individuals or children not exposed to violence (“innocents”) will naturally clench their fists in anger - although also a sign of manipulation.

    Clearly we have physiologically evolved our hands from knuckle dragging (in most places!) to tool wielding, but just like every dog is a wolf, every human is a potentially violent psychopathic ape waiting to knock ten shades of shit out of each other if pushed enough or the obligatory 10 pints, curry n fight Friday night debacle.

    And yes I too have suffered from “boxers/brawlers” injury and yes I too have been trained in various martial arts.

    Now, if only our fists were as hard as Chuck Norris’s chin….

  10. David Pollard

    They watched too many westerns

    Hollywood has a lot to answer for.

  11. Justicesays
    Thumb Down

    Was it just me or

    Did anyone else read this as

    "Man who doesn't like to lose arguments goes as far as to submit a paper to support tenuous position in argument"

    Frankly, the theory strikes me as a bit barmy.

    Evolution of thumbs specifically to increase punching power vs. adoption of behaviour that prevents breaking of fingers when hitting people using already available bodily appendages.

    I guess he proposes some time lag between when our ancestors were capable of picking up sticks and wielding them as weapons and when we actually started doing it.

    That first hominid with the stick must been all "Don't bring a thumb buttressed fist to a club fight" as he became king of punching land.

    1. AdamT

      Re: Was it just me or

      upvote for that last line - genuine LOL making colleagues look round ...

    2. poohbear

      Re: Was it just me or

      I'm sure it would be possible to write a paper claiming we walk on our hind legs because we can kick much harder than we can punch, and it's much easier to kick from a standing position than from all fours.

      1. Some Beggar

        Re: Was it just me or

        Try telling that to a dairy farmer after a cow has caught him in the man-udders.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      If you want to punch someone with your bollocks, Obviously!, go for it. In fact, why not practice on some concrete blocks, first... y'know, just to hone your technique.

  13. disgruntled yank Silver badge


    The Utahns seem to have forgotten the barroom adage that you should hit somebody in the head with your fist only if you can't find something harder.

  14. lawndart




    1. Steve Knox



  15. teebie

    punchmaster gets aaaaaaalllll the ladies

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "We propose that the derived proportions of hominin hands reflect, in part, sexual selection to improve fighting performance."

    So how does fisting fit into all this?

    1. Spoonsinger

      Re:- So how does fisting fit into all this?

      Well, when a man, (or your farther), really loves your mother, (or someone they just met at the office)......

      .... = probably some sort of pelvic exercise to make the whole process of birth more bearable without the whole cutting thing. To quote the Hawkins :-

      "Billy. Billy! The other day, I was going down on my girlfriend, I said to her, "Jeez you got a big pussy. Jeez you got a big pussy." She said, "Why did you say that twice?" I said, "I didn't." "

  17. Gary Bickford

    Does any other animal punch?

    It seems to me that all other animals use a motion akin to slapping - a bear or a lion will remove your nearest body part with one swipe of an open paw, claws out. Of all animals I can think of, only humans use the punching motion. (I'm not sure about kangaroos though). So this observation fits with the hypothesis.

    Also, the fact that we modern humans _mostly_ are likely to break something when punching is more about how life has gotten more civilized than the inherent structure. The big, burly street-fighting-man type has largely gone out of style (with the possible exception of Russian drivers in car accidents on YouTube). Nowadays few folks are brought up needing the kind of strength and callouses that would have been necessary to defend one's home and family, even a few centuries ago much less a few millennia.

    1. Some Beggar

      Re: Does any other animal punch?

      Quite. But it does make it a bit of a chicken and egg question. At what point did we stop doing the gorilla-style slap and start doing human-style punches? Did we start punching because our hands had become less vulnerable to damage from a knuckle-first impact? Or vice versa? Or - as seems to be more common in evolution magic - was it a gradual feedback loop?

      And is it easier to punch a chicken or an egg?

      1. Marcelo Rodrigues

        Re: Does any other animal punch?

        Duh. An egg - the damned chicken is always running!

  18. Spoonsinger

    The pair of reseachers at the University of Utah...

    are carrots. That is all.

  19. NickFun

    Then why is it that the dumbest people are the ones with the biggest fists?

    1. Swarthy
      Thumb Up

      Maybe because they have no other positive qualities to win a mate other than being "king of punching land"?

  20. squigbobble

    "It also provides a functional explanation for why women find tall men attractive."

    There's also a functional explanation for why women size up men's arses (yes they do) which I cooked up myself; the human gluteus maximus muscle is used mainly for running (which is why we have relatively big arses compared to knuckle-dragging apes) and good runners are better at running down ground-based prey.

    It's probably bollocks, or arse, or both.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    As an Avid Palmist,

    I am fascinated to see that the palms of both ape and man, as illustrated, show very little happening beyond December 21st, 2012. After that everything goes

    1. ian 22

      Re: As an Avid Palmist,

      December 21st? I thought the world ended yesterday and this is hell.

      I do think this winter is rather warmer than usual.

  22. Local G

    Don't forget the evolution of opposable lips.

    Not only were lips necessary for early humans to articulate sound and speech, but some of the more inventive of our ancestors realized that human lips were a tactile sensory organ, and could be erogenous when used in kissing and other acts of intimacy.

    "Through making a narrow funnel with the lips, the suction of the mouth is increased. This suction is essential for sucking on a straw to drink liquids. Lips can also be used to suck in other contexts."

    As the opposable thumb developed the hand into a fist for the more aggressive of our Urfathers, others (you know the type) were experimenting with their opposable lips, "finding that their lips had many nerve endings and reacted as part of the tactile senses. Lips, they soon discovered, were very sensitive to touch, warmth, and cold, and therefore an important aid for exploring unknown objects."

    If early man enjoyed clenching his fist, yelling "Drop that Babe," and then pounding the shit out of some other guy to win her, imagine how much more pleasure he got when his opposable lips delved into hers.

  23. pete 22

    You're all wrong.

    Onan the barbarian developed opposable thumbs in order to whack it better. Imagine what it must be like to fap without the benefit of thumbs. It almost makes you cry, no? But nay, we overcame adversity! Fapping is an essential survival skill, for keeping an even temperament and surviving a partnership in which you're not getting any. Which both are desirable traits for selection in this day and age. Notice how the ladies are drawn to an even-tempered steady mate. How do you think he got that way!? Opposable thumbs of course!

    Let's face it -- everyone does it. Every single man that you have ever shook hands with, has fapped with that hand.

    Have a nice day!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: You're all wrong.

      Aren't ladies drawn to men who fit complacently under ladies' thumbs? Men, who will never have to wank again, as long as they take the garbage out when they are told to.

  24. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Why do evolutionary scientists

    always try and put a macho spin on things?

    'Hunter Gatherers' should be called 'Gatherer Hunters' as most of the food was/is collected by the women. If you've ever stripped seeds from grasses you will see that the human hand is a perfect shape for it.

    Recent research has shown that out ancestors 3 million or so years ago lived almost exclusively on grass and sedges and a chimp hand is not the ideal tool for collecting grain but ours is and anyone who say different will get punched.

  25. Johan Bastiaansen

    I'll take a punch by a human

    over a punch by a chimp any time of the day.

    Men are weak compared to animals.

  26. Robert E A Harvey

    All wrong

    The thumb has evolved to get the highest possible ballroom hold marks from Craig Revell-Horwood.

    (Guess what Mrs H has been doing on saturday evenings?)

  27. ShadowedOne


    I always thought we evolved thumbs in order to play pool.

  28. d3rrial

    End of line

    Humans are the end of line for evolution. Not because we are particularly well developed, but because in our society EVERY specimen, however unfit for his environment gets carried by all the others and is allowed to reproduce (Speaking of first world countries). Every individual step forward a person makes will make no difference because for 1 person developing forward, there's one doing the opposite. Other Species on this planet will eventually evolve higher than we are, if we don't blow them and us to hell.

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