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Thursday, 29 December 2011

Did out feet and hands evolve together?

In The Descent of Man, Darwin suggested that bipedalism evolved first in humans, which in turn freed the hands for other purposes, such as building tools. That seems feasible, but less than a year ago, Canadian scientists created a computer model which suggested that feet and hands might have evolved together at the same time, as there is a correlation between the proportions of finger length to toe length. The researchers used measurements from chimpanzees to work this out.
It's a fairly typical causation question: did our ancestors walk upright because they were using their hands all the time, or did they start using their hands all the time because they were walking upright? Or, as in any other correlation, did they evolve both abilities simultaneously? Over the thousands and thousands of years, it is so much easier to assume they did evolve "pretty much" together, but if we were to rewind to that period in our evolution, would one or the other ability be obvious to have come first? The study doesn't actually attempt to answer this question, as theoretically it's equally possible for a change in hands to result in a change in feet, and vice versa.

But common sense points out that it isn't possible to use hands much for tool building if they are engaged in moving. So bipedalism must have started evolving before the ability to use hands in more complex activities such as stone tool making. That is just a thought experiment, though, and until more definitive evidence is found, this subject remains debatable. What do you think?

The path our humble feet have walked...

Aren't feet the natural progression from toes (read post here)? Human feet are interesting things, not just because:

a) they are made up of 25% of all bones in the body
b) many people have a fetish for them,

but because they are the small things which have evolved to hold our entire bodies.

In a previous post about how our bodies evolved so far, there is a little paragraph about our feet compared to those of Neanderthals. It emphasizes especially how our feet's evolution was closely linked with competition with the Neanderthals, in the sense that the structure of our feet enabled our ancestors to endure more prolonged walking over increasingly long distances, as well as running for long periods of time, chasing prey until it got exhausted, rather than being the fastest.

To many it seems, myself included, that human feet are so tiny - how can they support our entire body, as well as when put under pressure, for example when running? There are certain properties that our feet have evolved to have, like supporting our weight, walking and running, healing, etc.

Feet may seem like a couple of bones here and there, and some soft tissue, all wrapped in some skin. In fact, as can be seen in the picture above, our feet are made up of hundreds of ligaments, tendons and muscles, as well as 26+ bones and even more joints. The architecture going on there is very intricate, as all those smaller pieces work together to achieve the properties which allow feet to offer all their functions.

And yet, feet aren't works of perfection. They are prone to infections due to their location, touching the ground; athlete's foot? Ingrown toenail anyone? Also, they have their fair share of "genetic disorders" such as club foot and flat foot. Asymptomatic flat feet are considered a normal human variation, as they don't cause dysfunction or pain... I should know, mine are flat.

Next post in the top2toe tab will be about a certain Darwinian debate on how our hands evolved, and whether or not that was linked to the evolution of our feet/bipedalism. Darwin suggested our ancestors started using their hands for crafting/tools as their bipedalism evolved, allowing for the hands to be free. More in the next post.

(P.S.: Oh, and about the fetish bit... neurologist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran thinks that the feet are somehow linked to genitals in our minds, because they both occupy the same area of the brain...)

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Why people say "LOL" when they're not laughing

Recently I saw a picture on Facebook which was funny. Actually, it wasn't funny as much as witty. Either way, I commented on it and wrote "lol =)". Clearly I was not actually laughing, nor was the picture funny in the actual sense of the word. So why LOL?

Understanding the real meaning behind LOL requires understanding of the real meaning behind laughter.

Laughter is an expression of positiveness and approval. More powerful than any word, laughing at something or someone is a strong opinion of an underlying aspect of the situation. It doesn't have to be funny; it can be ridiculous, witty, subtle or even cruel and mocking. In essence, the word LOL has replaced actual laughter in situations where actual laughter simply isn't provoked. Yes, some pictures on Facebook are funny, but they're not REALLY that funny, and some jokes are witty but don't make us laugh.

Sometimes, LOL is used to approve of disapproving something.

"She bought a real fur coat, then binned it because the fashion changed"

This explains the sometimes ridiculous situation where a group of friends or acquaintances laugh together, despite some or most of them not really finding anything funny. They do it out of willingness to be part of the same frame of mind or group, maybe to facilitate getting closer to someone they fancy.