Our Fascinating Hands
WITH a piercing scream, the young man drops his hammer and grasps his thumb tightly as if to squeeze out the pain. Instead of hitting the nail, he had hit his thumb—again.
At that moment the would-be carpenter likely feels he would be better off without that thumb. But the often “clumsy” thumb is part of a most valuable piece of equipment each of us owns—the human hand.
Because we are so familiar with our hands—the nimble fingers, the flexible joints, the sensitive nerves, and so on—it is easy to take them for granted. But there is hardly any task that we can perform unless we use our hands. “All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power,” urged wise King Solomon. (Ecclesiastes 9:10) Well did he choose the hand as a symbol of human activities, for it is indeed a precision tool without equal.
Our fingers can fly across a typewriter keyboard at perhaps over a hundred words per minute. They can dance over the 88 keys of a grand piano and translate a page of notes into glorious music. But what about the thumb? Well, try this: Spread out your palm, and keep your fingers pointing straight up. Bend each finger, starting with the pinkie. Notice how hard it is to keep the other fingers from moving too? Now bend your thumb, move it up and down, move it in a circle. You can do it with virtually no movement of the other fingers. This unique independence of the thumb—made possible by the flexible saddle joint at its base and by having its own set of muscles—gives it many special capabilities.
One of these is that our opposable thumb can contact the surface of each of the other fingers, or provide a grip opposite any one of them. An insignificant detail? Try to pick up a coin without using your thumb, or open a jar, or turn a doorknob. Even our carpenter friend needs those “clumsy” thumbs so that he can hold a nail in place or swing his hammer. In fact, to disable captive enemy soldiers, certain ancient nations followed the cruel practice of cutting off their thumbs.—Judges 1:6, 7.
For all the work the fingers can do, they have amazingly few muscles. On the surface, this may seem to be a disadvantage, since more muscles mean more power. However, muscles tend to grow when in constant use. What would happen if our fingers were endowed with powerful muscles? With the amount of work the fingers perform, our hands would soon resemble thick paddles, making delicate work difficult or impossible. How grateful we can be that our Creator wisely placed most of the muscles in the forearms, linking them to the fingers by strong tendons!
A Perfect-Fitting Glove
The skin over your hand is more than just a covering. Pinch the skin on the back of your hand. You will see that it is loose and movable. It allows the fist to close. Now, what about the palm? The skin there is much less willing to come away from the palm. Just imagine how difficult it would be to keep a steady grip on anything if the skin were shifting back and forth. To reinforce the grip, the palm is cushioned with pads. These fatty deposits are especially thick just below the fingers and in the heel of the hand—the common pressure points when we grasp or press against something.
If you closely look at the palm side of your hand, you will note that the skin is not perfectly smooth. Besides the very prominent lines in the palm, the hand is covered with many minute parallel lines and loops called papillary ridges. Like treads on the bottom of your shoes, these ridges provide better traction and improve the grip.
At the tip of the ridges are openings for tiny sweat glands that moisten the palm. No doubt you have seen a workman rub his hands together briskly before tackling a heavy-duty job. This is not just a mannerism. Rubbing generates heat, which stimulates the sweat glands. The moisture provides friction for a better grip. What do you do when you have trouble turning the pages of a book that has very thin paper? Probably the same thing—you rub your fingertips against the thumb to make turning the thin pages easier.
The loops and swirls of the ridges on your fingertips have another use—they form your unique fingerprint. Incredible as it may seem, within that small space of the fingertip lies a pattern of lines that is not duplicated in the more than 50 billion other fingers and thumbs in existence. Even though twins may look identical, their fingerprints tell them apart. Interestingly, as far back as the third century B.C.E., Chinese businessmen identified their customers by means of fingerprints, which proved as reliable as a written signature. In fact, even injuries to the finger will not alter your print. It will grow back unchanged provided the damage is not too deep.
Thousands of Nerves
Though our hands cannot see, hear, or smell, they are, nonetheless, one of our principal means of sensing the world around us. What do you do, for instance, when you find yourself in a totally dark room? You stretch out your hands, fingers widespread, and grope around the room. Yes, our hands are not only precision tools but also delicate sensors. They provide us with a continuous flow of information—the stove is hot, the towel is wet, the gown is silky, the cat’s fur is soft, and on and on. Our fifth sense, the sense of touch, begins with the hands.
Our fingertips are so sensitive because they have a high concentration of sensory receptors—9,000 [1,400] of them to the square inch [cm]. If you held two pins a quarter inch [6 mm] apart and touched them to your face, they will feel like one pinprick. But touch the same pins to a fingertip, and the densely packed nerves there would instantly tell you that they were feeling two pins. This is what makes it possible for a blind person to read Braille. Who says the hands cannot see?
The only part of the hand that has no nerves are the nails. But that does not mean they are useless. On the contrary, the nails afford the sensitive but fragile fingertips support and protection. They also come in handy when you need to peel an orange, scrape off a little stain, or pick up a tiny bead. Have you ever wondered how fast the nails grow? That depends on a number of factors. Our nails grow faster in summer than in winter. They grow fastest on the thumb and slowest on the little finger. They grow faster in the dominant hand. And the overall rate is estimated to be about 0.004 inch [0.1 mm] per day.
They Tell on Us
Our hands can speak volumes. A warm handshake, a gentle stroke, a clenched fist, a shaking finger—they all tell something about us. In fact, most of us would find it hard to speak without embellishing our words with some sort of emphatic or descriptive gesture. For the deaf, this expressive ability becomes indispensable. Where the spoken word fails, the hand can take over with sign language. American Indians, Hawaiians, and African Bushmen all have their own graceful form of sign language.
More than just tell about us, our hands also tell us something. “In the extent to which they are used to communicate, not only words but emotions and ideas, the hands of man are unique,” writes John Napier in his book Hands. Even though many animal “hands” look essentially the same as ours, the unique structure and capability of the human hand cannot be explained away by resorting to blind evolution. Rather, its ingenious design clearly demonstrates the wisdom of its Designer, the Designer and Creator of all things, Jehovah God.—Revelation 4:11.
So as our young carpenter, hammer in hand, once again places the nail between his thumb and forefinger, he may have a newfound respect for his precious pair of hands. Truly, we are well equipped to do all that our hand finds to do.
[Picture on page 20]
No two fingers or thumbs among the more than 50 billion in existence have been found with the same print