Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

Human hands had a great part in lifting the species above all other in the animal kingdom

Human Hand is a Miracle Which Prompted the Joke Mankind Exceeded Evolution by 10 Fingers

It is encouraging to see the new surge of entrepreneurial energy in Manipur with a great many young men and women opting to be innovators of enterprises, rather than simply look for the easy way out of garnering a government job and settle to what is essentially a comfortable, and in Manipur’s now entrenched tradition of official corruption, even enriching, life of mediocrity. Author George Eliot called this the Middlemarch in her novel by the same name, and it is towards this that a great majority anywhere tend to be drawn into. Middlemarch does promise security and stability, and it is natural for most to want this. However, in societies where the powerful forces of Middlemarch have flattened out all individual endeavours, creativity is rare, and stagnancy is the general norm, regardless of how high the ceiling that defines this stagnancy.

A timeless Chinese saying also spells out this succinctly. It is said a bitter curse popular amongst Chinese peasantry of yore is “may you live in interesting times”. Interesting times in this context are those in which a society undergoes economic and political churnings, threatening the comfort of status quo but also promising revolutionary changes. These upheavals would ultimately bring all round growth, but while the churnings last, life can be hard, miserable and dangerous, hence the Chinese peasants’ desire, indeed also of a great majority of the people anywhere, for the slow, mediocre but stable and safe life of Middlemarch. This is also what Charles Dickens’ famous opening lines of his novel “A Tale of Two Cities” was also about. Describing the turmoil that accompanied the arrival of the Industrial Age, the high point of which was the French Revolution when a rising French middleclass rose violently against the French aristocracy, he characterized the time as: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” If the Industrial Age brought about new hopes and wealth for many, it also pauperised and marginalised others. In fact, the Chinese peasant’s sentiment may also be what is in the Meitei adage supposedly representing elder wisdom: “Ninghou semba yaoganu, Ningthou kanba oina yao” (liberally transliterated as “shy away from those working to upset the establishment, stand with those who would defend the establishment”.

Sometimes these social churnings are a compulsion. They also can come as a breath of fresh air amidst the oppressive stagnancy of Middlemarch. They also need not be so tumultuous. Manipur’s case should illustrate this well. Government after government have been clueless on how to make Manipur self-sufficient sapping it not just of material wellbeing, but also its spirit and pride in the self. Year after year, every government has been allowing the state to become ever more dependent on the Centre’s charity, and this years state budget which contrasted the state’s own tax and non-tax receipt amounting to just about Rs. 4,000 crores, and a budget estimate of over Rs. 34,000 crores. Under the circumstance, besides so many other consequences, there is practically no way the government can ensure respectable livelihoods, much less steady jobs to the state’s ever rising young job seekers directly. Hence, the brightest and bravest of the younger generation have now intuitively come to understand that only they can give themselves jobs, livelihoods and self-respect. It is encouraging hence that Manipur today seems to witnessing the coming of a nursery of innovative enterprises big and small. If even half of them pass the test of the challenges  before them, they would have done miles for the state.

It is also interesting to read why this same spirit of taking on challenges rather than settle for what is given and safe, is as old as the first humans who began walking on two legs. It is also interesting to read of how one of the greatest advantages humans had over the rest of the animal world is not just their brain, but also their two hands.

Fossilised evidences now show it was about 3.2 million years ago that human ancestors began walking on two legs. This is an old story that was pieced together after the discovery of the skeletal remains of a female Australopithecus in Ethiopia in 1974 by a team of scientists. These scientists were able to find and put together 40 percent of this particular hominid’s bones, and when it became known the hominid was female, they named it Lucy, taking the name from the famous song of the Beatles, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” which these scientists were fond of listening during the expedition. The story of Lucy is now well known now, how she was found, who found them and how the bones were dated first to about 2.8 million years and then revised to 3.2 million years. There were also controversies over its planned exhibition tours all over the world and because of these objections, eventually plastic replicas of Lucy were made for displays in various museums. But leave the scientific matters to the scientists for now. We have brought up this topic for something else very interesting we can speculate on. Why is it considered revolutionary from the evolutionary point of view that Lucy and other hominids of that era began walking on two legs? The answer seems simple. Because that was the point humans began the evolutionary journey on a separate path than the rest of the animal world.

The question remains, what is it about walking on two legs that made humans superior to walking on all four limbs, after all, those with four legs are faster runners, climbs more efficiently, and does many more physical feats much more efficiently? The answer is, Lucy’s generation of human ancestors, freed the limbs that would become the hands, from the burden of locomotion. These freed limbs, in the course of evolutionary time, grew in movement agility until it came to be the human hands that we know today, although we tend to take our hands so much for granted that we often fail to see its importance in making humans what they are today. Indeed, if an evaluation of all the attributes of the human body were to be done and grade them on a scale of importance in humans coming to dominate the living world, the hand may fundamentally be what shaped this present. Come to think of it, what is it that the human hands cannot do? Would all the progress that humans have made been possible? Would there have been all scientific inventions, architectural wonders made, great art and music created? If Lucy’s generation of human ancestors had not freed the upper limbs by straining to straighten their spines and walk on their hind legs, probably nothing that we know of today’s human technologically superior reality would have materialized.

Although the idea of evolution is relatively a modern notion contingent upon Charles Darwin’s ground breaking work in the 19th Century, intuitively the importance of the human hands was acknowledged much earlier. This is evident even in the Panchantantra tales told in comic books that were so popular in the pre-television generation that did not grow up with the multiplicity of modern cartoon characters flooding their drawing rooms. One of these stories, those from that past generation will remember, was about a suicidal Brahmin, who was dejected that he was so poor as his profession did not give him the means to be emerge out of his meagre means, while all around him had grown wealthy and prosperous. One day he was hit by a horse carriage of a rich man, and lay half-conscious on the road, with no will to wake up and live. A fox which saw him took pity and approached him. The animal woke up the man and asked him why he was giving up so easily. The Brahmin then told the fox of his misery. The fox was amazed at the man’s despair and asked in bewilderment: “Why are you so defeated? Don’t you have hands? With your hands you can do practically anything? Unlike us, if a thorn enters your sole, you can use your hands to remove it. If it is itchy anywhere on your body, you have hands to reach the spot and scratch. You can gather food, cook, stitch clothes to wear, make weapons…? What is it that you cannot do with your hands? So why despair? The story goes that the fox made the Brahmin see hope and decide to live. The lesson is for every one of us. Never despair, for we have the gift of our hands. Thank Lucy and her hominid generation for that revolutionary decision to begin walking straight. This is why many consider the way the human hand has evolved a miracle, anticipating the half serious joke that “mankind exceeded evolution by ten fingers”? It is in this sense that we are happy that many in the younger generation are refusing to be bogged down by the despairing conditions all around, to become conscious they have the priceless gift of hands, and with them they can virtually achieve what were once thought impossible.

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