Peer-Reviewed Journal Details
Mandatory Fields
King, R. J
Journal of Experimental Biology
Fists of Furry: At What point did Human Hands Part Company with the Rest of the Hominid Lineage?
In Press
Optional Fields
Evolution Combat Fists

A recent paper (Morgan & Carrier, 2012) suggested that there has been strong selection on human hands to be used as weapons. This paper used an interesting method of investigation to examine possible adaptations to striking in the human fist and made strong claims about the split of the human hand from the rest of the hominid lineage. However, this paper has overlooked some crucial points—which actually might serve to make their case regarding sexual selection somewhat stronger than they appear to have realised.

Firstly, the human hand is far from being an effective strike tool—those of chimps and gorillas are far more effective transmitters of force—as one might expect from an appendage that can also support the animal’s entire weight. Secondly, there are trade-offs in any adaptation. Specifically, the human hand shows a trade-off between holding and hitting, with evidence much more in favour of adaptations to holding at the expense of hitting. This might appear to undermine their case but only if one assumes a history of the use of the fist in out-group conflict—something which is unlikely for a variety of reasons. This is because—the final point-- while there is some evidence of adaptation for the hand as a weapon, specifically the mild sexual dimporphism in knuckle size, the authors do not go far enough in distinguishing the likely contexts of this.

Human fists are actually highly specialised weapons—of use only in ritualised in-group competition and only after much training. Use of an untrained fist results in more damage to the striker than the strikee.  The context of sexual selection on fists has likely included a lot more culturally-based interactions. This latter realisation leads to some interesting empirical predictions that could be tested across cultures.

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