In taking martial arts, Karate to be specific, a basic skill was how to punch and use a fist. While mere punching away has a strong effect, slight changes in how a person makes a fist can protect the knuckles. Using a solid stance and shifting the hips as you punch also creates and transfers more force.
Some martial arts teach how to extend a knuckle or how to extend the four knuckles so more force is pinpointed. The so-called chop stroke with the blade or the edge of the hand also directs the force in a specific way and allows one to strike something hard with the fleshy part of the hand protecting untrained knuckles from breaking. Go into these techniques deeply enough and one can learn myriad ways of directing and controlling dynamic force with the hand.
Intuitively, the hand is an amazing weapon for fine movements and for transferring force. Any child can learn to punch somewhat effectively without any training whatsoever. With training it becomes too easy, in peaceful ways, to wreck havoc on another’s body. Without training, a person punching the jaw of another will likely break their knuckles as well as the jaw. School yard kids quickly learn how much it hurts to punch the jaw and move to a softer spot the next time.
Explicitly, this has not been researched until recently. An analysis of the hand shows the advantages (force) of a fist to punch effectively doubles. Without training.
The derived proportions of the human hand may provide supportive buttressing that protects the hand from injury when striking with a fist. Flexion of digits 2–5 results in buttressing of the pads of the distal phalanges against the central palm and the palmar pads of the proximal phalanges. Additionally, adduction of the thenar eminence to abut the dorsal surface of the distal phalanges of digits 2 and 3 locks these digits into a solid configuration that may allow a transfer of energy through the thenar eminence to the wrist. To test the hypothesis of a performance advantage, we measured: (1) the forces and rate of change of acceleration (jerk) from maximum effort strikes of subjects striking with a fist and an open hand; (2) the static stiffness of the second metacarpo-phalangeal (MCP) joint in buttressed and unbuttressed fist postures; and (3) static force transfer from digits 2 and 3 to digit 1 also in buttressed and unbuttressed fist postures. We found that peak forces, force impulses and peak jerk did not differ between the closed fist and open palm strikes. However, the structure of the human fist provides buttressing that increases the stiffness of the second MCP joint by fourfold and, as a result of force transfer through the thenar eminence, more than doubles the ability of the proximal phalanges to transmit ‘punching’ force. Thus, the proportions of the human hand provide a performance advantage when striking with a fist. We propose that the derived proportions of hominin hands reflect, in part, sexual selection to improve fighting performance.
While the fist is unique in its ability to transfer force it could have evolved in a variety of ways for effective ability to manipulate.
“… the human hand has also been shaped by the need for manual dexterity. But they say that a number of different hand proportions are compatible with an enhanced ability to manipulate objects.
“There may, however, be only one set of skeletal proportions that allows the hand to function both as a mechanism for precise manipulation and as a club for striking,” the researchers write.
“Ultimately, the evolutionary significance of the human hand may lie in its remarkable ability to serve two seemingly incompatible, but intrinsically human, functions.”
Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos do not generally form fists, and the researchers think they are unable to: when a chimp curls up its fingers it forms a doughnut shape.
It is difficult for us to accept that we may have been so aggressive as an evolving species as to have developed fighting hands.
Asked whether the idea that aggression may have played a key role in shaping the human body might previously have been unpalatable to researchers, Prof Carrier explained: “I think we’re more in that situation now than we were in the past.
“I think there is a lot of resistance, maybe more so among academics than people in general – resistance to the idea that, at some level humans are by nature aggressive animals. I actually think that attitude, and the people who have tried to make the case that we don’t have a nature – those people have not served us well.
“I think we would be better off if we faced the reality that we have these strong emotions and sometimes they prime us to behave in violent ways. I think if we acknowledged that we’d be better able to prevent violence in future.”
We do get that we compete for mates. Historically, we have hidden women, developed sexual taboos, sanctified coupled relationships, and castigated jealousy. What we don’t want to admit is that humans are naturally aggressive.
Whether it is the Judeo-Christian notion that man was originally perfect in an Eden, the Rousseau followers who believed in a noble savage tainted by modernism (a changing definition), or the New Age idealization of a simple, natural life being free of violence, many desperately wish to believe humans are naturally peaceful until corrupted with pathological ideology, usually the civilization of their time.
Early cultural anthropologists, like Boas and Mead, wished to show aggression was learned, and biased their research to show native peoples were nonaggressive until a culture of power evolved.
For decades anthropologists refused to agree cliff dwellers of the Southwest, Anasazi, built their inaccessible homes for protection from other natives. I often visited these dwellings and it is astounding that so much work could have been invested merely for protection. Surely it was collateral, art, or some sort of nonaggressive reason. Sadly, not. Perhaps like me, others did not want to deal with the concept that we are so aggressive naturally. It makes us feel guilty for our species and it makes us feel less hopeful that we can become peaceful. But of course, what we are naturally capable of we can compensate for with culture, if we recognize the inherent ability first.
Anthropologists also claimed primitive people’s lives were harsh and difficult–brutish, time-consuming existence of scratching out food, shelter, and protection from animals.
Yet, applied anthropologists recreating the material culture of primitive people showed hunter-gatherers spent 2-4 hours a day maintaining their physical lifestyle while we moderns spend 10-12. I participated in some of this and as example 12 people can collect material and build a house for a family in 3 days, they can build a boat in another 2, they can collect enough food for the several weeks in a few days.
A modern metal arrowhead requires tremendous infrastructure and resource but the average Native American can make an obsidian point in 15 minutes; I was able to teach beginners how to make a crude but usable point in 2 hrs. The metal arrowhead lasts longer and production is scalable such that once the infrastructure is in place millions of arrow heads can be made quickly. For a few people massive, industrial infrastructure is not necessary.
Issues of reproduction and production create stress such that it requires more and more time and resource to create what was once more casually available. Unable to control ourselves we soon have to work harder and harder for less and less but for more and more people.
What did primitives do with their time? Talked, gambled, gamed, hung out, and competed for attention, status, and mates. I suppose we could insist that this be included as a resource input requirement but it would be incorrect.
In the movie A Beautiful Mind, the behavioral economist John Nash, rewrites the rules of the game such that males competing for women disperse their efforts. Rather than competing for the most desirous woman they agree to ignore her and woo her friends. More get more women with less resource depleting competition and women don’t feel they need to compete for mate attention. This game replaces fighting.
Long penises, uteral and seminal chemicals, and a host of other tactics all reveal strategies for controlling partner selection. Including a fist. A fist that can both pummel an enemy and fend off others in competition for a mate.
That this offends modern sensibilities is somewhat laudable. Perhaps it will encourage more passivity. But we will still have to deal with increasing population, declining resource, and mate selection.
Jim Newman, bright and well