Duquesne University

Is the Human Hand a Serious Evolutionary Topic? Darwin and Bell thought so – maybe we should, too

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Frank WilsonMarch 27, 2009, 7:00-10:00 p.m. Power Center Ballroom
Sponsored by UPMC Health plan and the Office of the Provost

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Frank Wilson, M.D. is a graduate of Columbia College and the University of California School of Medicine. A neurologist who is now retired from active clinical practice, he was a founder of the Health Program for Performing Artists at the University of California San Francisco and its medical director from 1996-2000. He was Clinical Professor of Neurology at Stanford University Medical Center until 2003. He has long been interested in the neurology of skilled hand movement, and is a widely respected authority on the neurology of acquired hand disorders. He is the author of two monographs on the hand, the second of which The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture; Pantheon Books was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1998.

Abstract: Charles Darwin and Charles Bell were contemporaries; like Darwin, Bell was a comparative anatomist, and the two shared the conviction of late Renaissance anatomists that the human hand was an organ of unique design and central importance to human life. In 1833, while Darwin was exploring Tierra del Fuego aboard the Beagle, Bell proclaimed in his famous Bridgewater Treatise that the human hand, the perfect instrument for human intelligence, proved the existence of God. Nearly forty years later, in The Descent of Man, Darwin demurred.

It is perhaps a fair measure of the unbridled growth of complications confronting the sciences of human behavior that the exact place of the human hand in human intelligence remains unknown. In this talk, some of the history of the effort to answer this question will be reviewed, and the possible significance of recent findings in anthropology and language studies will be presented.

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