Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human

Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human

by Chip Walter

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The fascinating evolutionary links between six seemingly unremarkable traits that make us the very remarkable creatures we are. See more details below


The fascinating evolutionary links between six seemingly unremarkable traits that make us the very remarkable creatures we are.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Humans are the only creatures that cry for both grief and happiness, although many animals shed tears that help protect their eyes. As science journalist and former CNN bureau chief Walter tells readers in this fascinating and superbly written book, there are a handful of characteristics (like crying) that distinguish us from the rest of the animal kingdom and can be explained in evolutionary terms as having been advantageous for our distant ancestors. Laughter is one: dogs may bark happily when they get to go for a ride or play with their canine neighbors, but only humans break into chortles and guffaws. Walter (who coauthored I'm Working on That with William Shatner) says that laughter helps us bond with our friends and co-workers. He points out that we give our big toe little thought until we stub it, but its evolution allowed Homo erectus to stand upright millions of years ago and led to other helpful evolutionary features, like the pharynx which in turn made speech possible. Readers also learn why we tousle our children's hair, why kissing is so much fun and what may lie ahead as we near the end of our current evolutionary reel. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Walter (Science Writing/Carnegie Mellon Univ.) celebrates Vive la difference-not so much between the sexes as between us and other primates. The author recaps early hominid history on African savannas, detailing how a change in the position of the big toe (facing forward and not sideways) enabled not only upright posture but facility in movement. The opposable thumb in turn was the nifty mutation that led to a tool-making tradition. Now add neoteny, the delay in development so that adult forms of a species retain some infantile characteristics. In the case of Homo sapiens, neoteny means that babies are born highly immature, a painful compromise made necessary to allow the baby's head to pass through a birth canal narrowed by the change to upright posture. These are twice-told tales, which Walter narrates with flair and enthusiasm, often relating the anatomical change to behavior. In the case of babies, there is a need for extended periods of parental care and nurturing, with all that implies about social bonding, securing a helpful mate and so on. For the rest of the book, Walter embarks on less familiar, more speculative ground. Clearly, language is a distinguishing human characteristic, which depends anatomically on a unique change in the position of the larynx in relation to the pharynx and the tongue, but whether gestures or grunts or both were precursors is not clear. Then it's on to laughter, self-consciousness, tears and kissing: Here, Walter trots out numerous behavioral studies, brain imagings, evolutionary psychology research and anthropological lore to illustrate theories of why the behaviors developed. In general, Walter sees these activities as means of strengtheningcommunication in a species dependent on social interaction. Alas, by the end, he is all too ready to spout arguments on sex differences that parrot ex-Harvard president Lawrence Summers, as well as the bits about males sowing their seed whenever they can, while choosy women look for male power and support. Lively writing throughout-just take some of it with a grain of salt.
inventor and author of The Singularity is Near: Ray Kurzweil
Eons ago, we started to stand straight with our big toes, freeing our hands, evolving our thumbs, manipulating our environment, transforming the thoughts in our expanded brains into changed realities. In this brilliant account of how the majestic human enterprise started from these humble beginnings, Chip Walter vividly tells the ambiguous, messy, and utterly fascinating stories that led to our becoming the technology-creating species.
Michael S. Gazzaniga
With a story teller's skill Chip Walter urges us to see how great things come from small beginnings. He refreshingly points out that while ideas have consequences, so do big toes, opposable thumbs and four other human traits that, mostly, we take for granted. We may have much in common with the animal world, but thanks to an unlikely collision of seemingly small evolutionary changes something extraordinary happened — the human race. A fascinating read.

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Bloomsbury USA
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