The free hand has always been deemed decisive in the hominisation process, and it continues to be an undeniable fact. However, the hand is considered ancient from the evolutionary standpoint because it is multi-functional. The only function for which it has a true specialisation is to grasp with precision, made possible by the existence of the opposable thumb on the hand. It is the free hand which, for its part, allows for the liberation of tools, and the access, thus, to the word. The human hand is human with respect to what it makes and not to what it is. Taking commands from nerve impulses coming from the brain, the hand may go beyond being a tool to becoming a motor. In contrast with what was believed up to Leroi-Gourhan, there is a solution of continuity amongst biological evolution, anthropoid evolution and technical evolution.
The free hand has always been deemed decisive in the hominisation process, and it continues to be an undeniable fact. Its relevance in the context of the other physical changes along the evolution which has taken Homo Sapiens Sapiens to where we are today continues to be reviewed. With respect to this subject, Leroi-Gourhan observes that the liberation of the hand in the australanthropes in the tertiary age came about as a consequence of a series of successive “liberations” begun in species which appeared quite some time before primates and which, for its part, allows for the liberation of the brain in anthropoids. In the discourse of the liberation of the brain, the motor areas were replaced with areas of association of quite a different character, as opposed to the brain being oriented more toward the ever-evolving technical specialisation which occurs in other species, thus opening up unlimited possibilities for generalisation. The human species is characterised precisely for having escaped this anatomical specialisation, which afforded humans the capacity for nearly all types of possible actions, and in using this extremely ancient part of the human skeleton, which is the hand, operations which are commanded by a brain super-specialised in generalisation becomes possible. The only function for which it has a true specialisation is to grasp with precision, made possible by the existence of the opposable thumb on the hand, which no other species enjoys; moreover, not all other primates have this ability, using simpler forms of grasping. It is the free hand which, for its part, allows for the liberation of tools, and the access, thus, to the word. Leroi-Gourhan explains that the distancing that is expressed in the separation of the tool relative to the hand, seen first, and the distancing of the word relative to the object, seen next, is also conveyed in the distancing that society assumes relative to its zoological group. That is why it may be said that all of human evolution has occurred to push aside from humans that which, in the rest of the animal world, corresponds the specific adaptation. The human hand is human with respect to what it makes and not to what it is. The liberation of the hand, above all, resides in the fact that it is free when a human walks, thus taking on the ability to walk fully upright, which in time led to paleontological consequences for the development of the cerebral apparatus. Taking commands from nerve impulses coming from the brain, the hand may go beyond being a tool to becoming a motor. It is this evolution which directs modern man in contrast with the primates, for whom gesture and tool form a single whole, and next to the first anthropoids for whom the hand’s mode of action is characterised by direct motive action, with the hand tool being separable from the motive gesture, and even up to our already human ancestors for whom, perhaps in the Neolithic, gesture became annexed by the hand-operated machine and the hand merely supplied the motor impulse by indirect mobility. The hand in indirect mobility corresponds to a new ‘liberation,’ in that the motive gesture finds new freedom in the scope of a hand-operated machine which extends or transforms it. If it is very difficult to locate the moment in time when this important stage came to be overtaken, what is certain is from that moment the applications of indirect mobility have not ceased to develop. Successively, the very motive force abandons the human arm and then sets off the motive process in animal-operated machinery (animal-drawn vehicles, for example) or in automotive machinery (run on wind energy or water power, as in the examples of mills) until finally the hand sets into motion the programmed process in automatic machines, which not only exteriorises the tools, gestures and mobility, but spills over into memory and mechanical behaviour. Throughout this course, the biological process and the technical process gets blurred to a certain extent, and as Leroi-Gourhan notes: “This enmeshing of tools and gestures in organs extraneous to the human has all the characteristics of biological evolution because, like cerebral evolution, it develops in time through the additional elements that improve the operational process without eliminating one another. (…) The existence and the operation of an automatic machine with a complex programme implies that at every stage of its manufacture, regulation, and repairs, all categories of technical gestures are still present though only faintly discernible.” (Leroi-Gourhan, 1990b: 38-39). Contrary to what was believed up to Leroi-Gourhan, there is nevertheless a solution of continuity between biological evolution (ruled over by the laws of Darwinian evolution) and anthropic evolution (in which language and the reflexivity it provides intervene) and technical evolution (with the technological alteration of the very biological and symbolic conditions of evolution).
With the acquisition of upright walking, the hand takes over as the organ of association and labio-dental contact is no longer dominant, continuing to be important only in affective contact and in a few technical operations where the mouth serves as an additional claw or pincer. The transition to tools is thus functionally justified by the transfer of the field of association to the hand. Hand and tool thus alternate as supports of our relationship with the world, one which is always mediated by language, by the word. Hand, tool and language are interdependent, implicating and professing themselves mutually within our relationship with the things of the world. As for our relationship with the things which surround us, it is perhaps through poetry that it is most eloquently expressed: “the joy of things is not in possessing them / but in the similarity to those things / No thing has its own form / except that which the hand gives it, as the hand uses the thing”.
Fiama Hasse Pais Brandão, Cenas vivas. Lisboa: Relógio d’Água, 2000, p. 18.
Leroi-Gourhan, André - O gesto e a palavra, 1 - Técnica e linguagem. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1990
Leroi-Gourhan, André - O gesto e a palavra, 2 - Memória e ritmos. Lisboa: Edições 70, 1990