Book Review: Thumbs, Toes, and Tears by Chip Walter

Thumbs, Toes, and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human by Chip Walter is an evolutionary story about what sets human beings apart from other animals. Walter specifically identifies six traits of humans that can be found in no other species: Big toes, opposable thumbs, the pharynx, laughter, tears, and kissing.

The big toe is important in that helped humans walk upright which in turn modified our anatomy leading to larger brains and skulls. At the same time the body adapting to walking and running means the birth canal is too small to allow easy egress of our big heads. So human infants are born far earlier in their development than other mammals and that is why humans are so helpless in their early years. In fact the long period of ongoing learning and development is uniquely human.

The opposable thumb is well-respected as the difference between humans and other animals, allowing us to create and manipulate tools. Our hands are also central to our ability to communicate and the genesis of language.

The pharynx is most fascinating in that it physically allows us to speak. I never knew that it does this by intersecting the airways and the esophagus, which does not happen in oher mammals. The price to pay for being the animal that speaks is that we are also the animal that can choke. Being able to speak gives rise to consciousness and the prefontal cortex of the brain.

Laughter allows us to connect emotionally to others and is rooted both in our primal urges and our ability to walk upright.

Crying is the most mysterious as humans are the only beings that have tears that well up and drip out of the eyes as a means of expressing emotion (as opposed to merely keeping the eyes clean). One theory is that crying actually brings us back into a state of equilibrium. Crying is also a means of body language to communicate emotions to other humans.

Finally, kissing is a learned cultural trait that allows us to communicate our love and affections in a way that feels really good.

Walter writes all of this in a lively style that makes it a fun and engrossing read. In many ways it is a gentler version of Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape which Walter cites several times. It’s a work of popular science, and it hems & haws with a number of “probablys” and “we don’t know for sures”, but I think it teaches an illuminating lesson in human evolution and unique traits.

Interesting Quotes:

If we were born as fully formed and physically mature as the babies of contemporary great apes, human gestation would last not nine months, but twenty-one! This means we are born a fully year premature. We may define “full term” as nine months in the womb, but by ape standards we are fetuses that have arrived twelve months earlier than we should have. – p.34-35

We tend to think that the forces of evolution are terrifically at rooting out all wastefulness to make the brain thoroughly optimized for smooth, clean operation. But the truth is that evolution feels it way toward success, tinkering and puttering until it stumbles across marvelously inventive solutions to the problems that need for survival presents, and then shambles on. Our brain, amazing as it is, is not an efficient machine, but a maddeningly complicated organ that stubbornly resists analysis. – p. 107

Quite possibly we cry not because we are getting agitated and upset, but because it is a way for our nervous system to bring us back into equilibrium.

One study reveals, for example, that if the nerves central to the sympathetic system are paralyzed, patients cry more. But when important parasympathetic nerves are damaged, they cry less. If crying was driven by the sympathetic nervous system, it would be the other way around. In other words, we don’t cry because we are upset, which is the way it feels, but because we are trying to get over being upset. That may be the real reason why feel better after we have a good cry. p. 173

Our simian cousins, gifted and intelligent as they are, don’t have the capacity for the powerful marriage of thoughts and emotions. They can feel rage, frustration, or loss, but they do not reflect on them. The random emergence of genes that connected the emotional and intellectual parts of our brains to lacrimal glands that sit above our eyes gave us a new way to express those elusive feelings. And in the bargain we gained an emotional stamp we can put on our cries for help that no other creature possess. – p. 179

Movie Review: The Departed

On Friday night, Susan & I finally saw the Boston-based crime drama The Departed.

This movies is the goriest and most brutal I’ve seen since The Gangs of New York. Not surprisingly, the two films share the same director Martin Scorsese. Other things in common are that they are stories about Irish mobsters and star Leonardo DiCaprio. They also share some great acting although The Departed’s villain Jack Nicholson is not up to par to Daniel Day Lewis’s great villainous performance in The Gangs of New York. I generally don’t like Nicholson, but he gets far enough away from playing himself in portraying a Whitey Bulger type of mob boss. Overall, the all-star cast is impressive including DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga (who plays the only female character). Mark Wahlberg may have put in the best performance of all since I didn’t even recognize him. He plays the obnoxious hardnose cop who turns out to be the only trustworthy character one can count on.

Beyond the great acting, witty dialogue, and a good story there are some flaws in the movie. First, it is way to violent for my tastes. I’d consider seeing it again to work out the intracicies of the plot if I could see a version without all the point-blank gunshots to the head. The body count in this film is seriously high, I think the number of people killed in this movie is larger than that actual murder rate in Boston. The finale has the most major characters killing one another since Hamlet and contributes to an unsatisfactory, over-the-top ending. The idea of rats is overstated as it seems that all the cops are working for the mob and all the mobsters are in the police force. Finally, the big clue of the Citizens bank envelope is handled so unsubtly it is an insult to the audience’s intelligence. Then again I have extreme difficulty telling the difference between DiCaprio and Damon who look alike to me, so maybe I’m not to bright.

Overall, an above average movie, but far too violent.


Independent Book Stores

Three recent articles of interest regarding bookstores:

First an article about the people responsible for opening new independent book stores at a time when the independent book store is is said to be on it’s death bed:
‘We’re not in it for the money’ The number of independent bookstores has been steadly growing. But will they survive? — By Teresa Méndez in the Christian Science Monitor.

Part of what these stores – and the larger independent community – are working to do is find a niche, a way to create an experience the warehouse-size stores cannot, whether through knowledgeable handselling, hosting author and community events, or carrying a particular genre.

Following up on the news of the 98 new independent bookstores in the country, some advice to keep the independent bookstore alive:

Wicked Witch of Publishing Takes Over Pretend Independent Bookstore. Will She Thrive—or Just Survive? — By Lynne W. Scanlon in The Publishing Contrarian.

Where do I find the mass grave of the 2500 bookstores that went out of business between 1990 and 2006? I want to stand beside it and bid adieu to Murder Ink, Coliseum Books and Micawber Books—bookstores-turned-white-elephants that have recently succumbed at the ages of 34, 32, and 26, respectively—as their corpses are tossed on top of the bones of their erstwhile predecessors. Then I want to grab the owners of the 97 new independent bookstores that arrived on the scene in 2006 by the scruff of the neck, drag them to the edge of the grave and scream: “Don’t make the same mistakes these guys did.”

Finally, an article on bringing bookstore ideas into the library, albeit ideas from chain bookstores. I’d love to see an independent bookstore-inspired library. The smell of pathcouli would be as strong as the voices of the prophets of doom.

What libraries can learn from bookstores: Applying bookstore design to public libraries — By Chris Rippel in

Crosstraining would benefit libraries. Training circulation and reference staff in the mysteries of interlibrary loan would increase their ability to answer questions and advise patrons about the interlibrary loan process. Crosstraining catalogers and reference staff could produce better cataloging for use by reference staff and improve reference staff’s understanding of the access provided by cataloging.

This quote speaks to a constant struggle at my own library. We’re constantly in trouble when “the expert” is not around, but on the other hand when everyone is cross-trained it’s hard for each individual to keep track of all that information and overall service is watered down. Quite a conundrum.

Not scared enough?

One of the things that push my buttons most when following the news is fearmongering. So you won’t be surprised how peeved I am by the following headline.

U.S. not scared enough of bird flu, Senate told” — By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor. Copyright 2007 Reuters.

I think the last thing that the news media and the government need to be telling our citizens is that they are not scared enough. Improve public health efforts and preventitive means? Yes. Develop preparedness plans to counteract possible outbreaks? Yes. Making people worry? No! Scaring people about one potential disease is counterproductive. We’ve seen in the past few years people stocking up on Cipro that they don’t need and making runs on flu shots that should be reserved for the elderly, children, and other high risk groups. Not to mention that diseases that are already among us are ignored as attention and funds are misappropriated to the scary disease du jour.

I read a good book last year on this trend called False Alarm: The Truth about the Epidemic of Fear by Dr Marc K. Siegel which I reccomend for those interested in reason over fear.