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Hand-crafted – or handily crafted non-argument?

In the Mini-Cosm section of the Metro newspaper on 8th March 2011 was an article entitled ‘Hand-Crafted’.  I tried to look for the original article, but it appears to be in a science journal I’d have to fork out a lot of cash for; however I did find a few fuller articles on the internet – here and here.

The original Metro newspaper article reads as follows :

“Charles Darwin was right-  stone tools helped shape our hands.  His theory was confirmed in tests which saw experts use replica stone flakes as blades in looking at whether hand size was a factor in the tool’s ability to cut rope.  This ‘biometric’ variation tallied with cutting efficiency.  ‘From a very early stage in our evolution was influencing biological evolution,’ Dr Stephen Lycett of the University of Kent said. “

Immediately something didn’t seem to hold water in this argument as it was presented, so I kept it to look into.  Admittedly cramming the essence of research into such a brief mini-article can mean meaning is obscure and what seems odd makes sense when you think  about it.  However, when I looked into it (good old Google and a judicial use of keywords) I found a few slightly fuller articles (noted above).  Both take the same line – Darwin’s speculation has been proved right 150 years later.  The basics are observations about the different between the manipulative abilities of great apes and humans – as one article says

“Research over the last century has certainly confirmed the existence of a suite of features in the bones and musculature of the human hand and wrist associated with specific gripping and manipulatory capabilities that are different from those of other extant great apes.”

and the assumption that evolution has happened, so that tool-use might be responsible via natural selection for the differences in hand-design – as the article goes on to say :

“These features have fuelled suggestions that, at some point since humans split from the last common ancestor of living apes, the human hand evolved away from features adapted for locomotion toward alternative functions.”

And the other article summarizes :

Anthropologists at the University of Kent have found the hands of our ancestors may have been evolved by natural selection as a result of using simple cutting tools.

“One theory has held that after humans split from the last common ancestor of living apes, the human hand evolved away from features suitable for locomotion toward alternative functions.

Anthropologists at the University of Kent have found the hands of our ancestors may have been evolved by natural selection as a result of using simple cutting tools.”

Apart from the ‘Darwin proven right’ certainty of the headlines being rather a stretch from the ‘may have been evolved…’  of the articles, the issue is that even accepting the basic fundamental assumptions, the research does not even appear to prove what they are supposed to.  Granted, these are just summary articles and may not be doing adequate justice to the original research and article, but assuming they have the basics right, all the research did was investigate issues to do with hand size. That’s not the same as functionality by a long shot.  So different hand sizes result in different cutting efficiencies in replica stone tools?  Big deal.  What does that prove?  It just proves that different hand sizes result in different cutting efficiencies in stone tools of a particular size or shape.  You have to assume evolution to ‘prove’ – and it is far from proving – that this is an evolutionary effect.  Why not variation among a pre-existing hand-formation – as creationist positions would maintain for instance.  One article states that

“..the results … show that ‘biometric’ variation did indeed result in a significant relationship with cutting efficiency in the experimental task.”

But that there is a significant relationship does not prove anything about the direction of that relationship, which brings me to my second point, namely that if I want to create a stone tool for use, surely I would tailor it to be most efficient for the person I am creating it for (either myself or another) – so really, the size and shape of the tools simply tell us something about the hand-size of the person it was made for and the skills of the person who made it (possibly the same person).  Hand-crafted tools say nothing about the crafting of hands – assuming evolution to ‘prove’ evolution is indeed a handily crafted non-argument.