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Protect Your Thumbs or Lose Your Heritage

Column by A. Arif Husain
News Editor

A respectable goal of any upstanding citizen is to speak out, if not take action, against injustice. Whether because of oppression, suppression, or downright ignorance, it is often the silent minority that bears the most abuse. Invariably, the ramifications of injustice resound to the detriment of those who perpetrate the offense, as well as to that of the victims. So for my part, I've recognized an instance of such malignancy, and I hope that my illustration of this pressing situation may give us a better grip on the road to resolve.

The group I represent, while fewer in number than others, stands strong at nearly 500 million in this country alone, and close to 14 billion worldwide. Every active person on the planet interacts with my group many times a day, though people rarely waste a microsecond to recognize its contributions. From infancy, when members of this group are called upon as built-in pacifiers, to old age when they are just fun to have around, we owe these guys an immense debt of gratitude.

But now, I'm afraid, the group I represent is headed straight for extinction. And as usual, we are responsible. That's right, the human thumb, whose opposability defines our species and sets us apart in the ability to grasp and use tools, now lies dormant in our technologically elite society.

Let me explain. The thumb has come a long way in the past ten thousand years or so. Our early ancestors used their thumbs to pick fruit, hunt, build shelters, and carve tools. Try skinning a buffalo with just eight fingers, and things should become clear. Our advancement through the metal ages, the industrial revolution, and finally to the computer age was made possible by our primitive ability to use thumbs where the use of fingers alone left our ape cousins scrounging.

Throughout history, the thumb has been given the respect it deserves. Kingdoms based measurements like the inch on the length of the royal thumb. Various languages evolved relying on thumb gestures. Spend a few hours on a stretch of interstate highway and you will agree that a single outstretched thumb can convey quite a story.

Common verbal expressions, some still used today, use the thumb as a formula. How would one describe a lazy person's idleness without citing the symbolic thumb lodged in congruent posterior anatomy? Would it be the same to describe one's own clumsiness by saying: "Gosh, I'm all pinkies?" And what about the avid horticulturist left with the uncertainty of which digit to call green?

One of my better-remembered childhood stories was "Tom Thumb." I don't know how my early development would have been different had a "Tom Finger" stood in as a major literary figure.

Would Siskel and Ebert approve of two index fingers up? I should think not.

At this stage, however, we've lost touch with our thumb-founded roots, and seem to have set its distinctive abilities behind. Nearly every modern invention relies on the maneuverability of the fingers, relegating to the thumb such mindless chores as clicking the space bar or maybe honking the horn. While at first this my seem inconsequential, the truth is far more serious.

When people began to walk upright, science tells us, our tails were no longer necessary and were therefore lost. Who can say the same fate is not in store for our hapless thumbs? A few hundred million years from now, when my x-great-grandchildren are walking around with four-fingered flaps at the end of each arm, I'd rather not be held accountable.

Perhaps the only ubiquitous technology which is thumb-friendly these days is the remote control, a symbol of the chronic laziness our culture suffers. Ironically, this fluke may be our escape. Hence it seems clear that the recent rise in television viewing by our young people is merely nature's way of steering natural selection away from a course that may well leave our future generations thumbless. Start clicking those channels and there just might be a chance. Thank God for Darwin.

And so it comes down to a matter of appreciation. As we drift away into environments of silicon and molded plastic, it's easy to forget the thumbs that made it all possible. As students of fields which deal directly with issues of technology and design, we should stand at the forefront of the thumb revolution. For the sake of the human race, please give thumbs a chance.