Our opposable thumb

Stereoscopic vision, depth perception, certain emotions and other perceptions, and the ability to stretch our thumbs farther than most other species, the ability to build and destroy things, and many other traits individually or in combination separate us from other species, not necessarily all species though.  Other animals with opposable thumbs include gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and other variants of apes; certain frogs, koalas, pandas, possums and opossums, and many birds have an opposable digit of some sort.  Many dinosaurs had opposable digits as well.  Granted, most of these are primates, as are we.  I wonder if rationalization is something unique to humans.  The ability to ponder may be as well.”

Humans are not the only species with an opposable thumb.  We are not the species with the largest brain.  We are not the only species to communicate or walk bipedal.  So what does make Homo sapiens unique? Perhaps it has something to do with our imagination, our ability to ponder “what if?” and our stubborn persistence.  Long ago I realized that I depend very strongly on my ability to imagine.  Confronted by a challenging situation I imagine choices unfolding into the future.  “Will this work?” I let my imagination run and a scenario plays out allowing me to decide “yes, I think this will work” or “no, I don’t think this will work.”  I wonder, is imagination the real strength of Homo sapiens?  It certainly helps when deciding a direction of action if we can picture a scenario in our head and imagine future outcome, assuming our assumptions are correct.

Now let’s take it one step further, what about belief in the absence of knowing?  What does it mean that we can act even in the absence of logical argument?  True story.  As a graduate student in Civil Engineering at Purdue University I was not allowed to be the principal investigator on a research proposal.  I had written a research proposal to investigate manufacturing topsoil from waste materials.  The proposal required the signature of our department head who informed me that he had asked a professor in my department to sign my proposal as principal investigator.  I was required to meet with this professor (who would be getting all the credit and control over my research proposal if it was successful.)  I met with him and he told me “what you are proposing is not going to work.”  He refused to sign my proposal.  I told him “I believe it will work.” and I found a way to get around the rule.  I got the research done and proved the concept.  Twenty years later I am running my own business ‘Soilmaker’, manufacturing topsoil from waste materials.

How much does our belief impact human advances?  If we believe we can do something does that mean we are able to do something?  I once read a definition of genius.  It read “A genius is someone who sees something no one else sees…and reaches it.”  How many times have we read about geniuses who refused to accept limitations, who accomplished something no one else thought they could?  What happened to all the others who failed?  What happens in the mind of some humans when they refuse to accept limitations?  Is this perhaps a unique quality that drives humans to reach beyond known limits?

And then there is our stubborn human persistence.  I was in my 20’s when I volunteered to be tested as an adult child of alcoholics.  The woman administered the test to both my sister and I at the same time.  Part of the test was a series of puzzles where we were given several pieces of cardboard and asked to assemble them into a specific shape.  The first two were relatively easy to solve, the third impossible.  My sister worked for five minutes and gave up.  I kept on working.  Then my sister grabbed the pieces and tried again.  She quit after 10 minutes.  I kept on working.  Forty five minutes later the woman administering the test interrupted me and said “I don’t want to stop you but it’s obvious you aren’t going to stop and I have to end this test.  I have to tell you that that there is no solution for this puzzle.  The test is to see how long you will try.”  I looked at her.  I heard what she said “There is no solution.”  But my mind said “I think I can solve it.”  What makes us believe we can do what we’ve been told is impossible?

What is it that makes some humans keep trying even in the face of failure?  Why do we keep trying when we encounter problems we can’t seem to solve?  What happens when we “believe” something different?  Is it really as simple as sometimes some people just won’t give up?  Is this what makes Homo sapiens different from other species of animals?

We have our imagination and it allows us to picture events unfolding; to see what might be.  And we have the ability to believe in the unknown to imagine something different.  We have determination that keeps us working even in the face of failure.  Perhaps it was not our opposable thumbs that led to tool use.  It was not our bipedal form of locomotion that allowed us to stand and look to the horizon that allowed us to move outwards.  It was not our ability to communicate with each other that allowed others to follow.  Perhaps it has been our ability to imagine and to believe in something our mind cannot not confirm that has allowed us to move beyond our limitations.

Climate change is accelerating.  Its impacts are going to be more severe than earlier models predicted.  We have less time to respond than we previously thought.  Many people conclude that humans are not going to change, we are not going to stop using fossil fuels before it’s too late, our society is doomed to collapse.  Maybe so.  But maybe we should still try.  I found the following article very informative and inspiring.

What would genuine, no-bullshit ambition on climate change look like?

“All the science and modeling are saying the same thing, which is that humanity faces serious danger and needs to reduce carbon emissions to zero as quickly as possible.  The chances of us getting our collective shit together and accomplishing what these scenarios describe are … slim.

There are so many vested interests and so much public aversion to rapid change, so many governments to be coordinated, so many economic and technology trends that must fall just the right way. It’s daunting. Conversely, the chances of us overdoing it — trying too hard, spending too much money, reducing emissions too much or too fast — are effectively nil.

So the only rule of climate policy that really matters is: go as hard and fast as possible, forever and ever, amen.”

What would happen if we refuse to stop trying?  Can we imagine a different future and don’t stop reaching for it?  What if we refuse to admit failure and in the absence of certainty, we stubbornly refuse to quit?  What if our actions now at this moment in time are truly what separates humans from all other species of life on earth?  Can we can tame our fossil fueled addiction to consumption?  Can we heal our over-polluted world?  Can we use our opposable thumbs, our love of tools, our hyper-ability to communicate,  and our unending need to conquer new challenges to reverse climate destabilization?  What will it take for you to believe it’s worth trying?

7 Replies to “Our opposable thumb”

  1. Fascinating Jody.

    Along the lines of scholastic navel gazing about features of we humans which make us different, have a look at Cecilia Heyes’ recent book:
    Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking from Harvard University Press

    There are some criticisms of her thesis. And though I was enamored enough with the little of it I saw online to order my own copy, I do keep a critical eye on hand as I read it. Still, I’m impressed enough to suggest others may want to have a peek and see if it is something they might value.

    As I’m not particularly a ‘people person’ – I tend to downplay the significance attached to cultural issues. But there are Homo sapiens in all the habitable places on Earth (and even in some uninhabitable places)… so there must be something about the way we organize ourselves, something about curiosity, dogged determination, and opposable thumbs which make this diaspora possible. [good grief… there are folks on a volcanic rock in the middle of the Pacific ocean, buffeted by hurricane force storms that dare to raise cattle… I mean, what better example of doggedly determined do we need??] 🙂

    I share your optimism that there may yet be a way out of our collective mess. Hope springs eternal.

    1. Indeed, hope springs eternal! Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll take a look. I’m not sure what you mean by “I’m not a people person.” You seem to be a people person to me.

  2. Hi Jody, I’m trying not to make your story about patriarchy in academia (and elsewhere) take over my response to your post, but today of all days it is almost impossible not to growl over yet another example of an intelligent woman being flagrantly patronized. So, grrrrr!

    I would tend to agree that thinking and imagining are our species’ greatest talent. Also it may well be our greatest curse, as we live more in the web of symbols and dreams that we have woven around ourselves than in the world we share with non-humans. I do hope that we will quite literally come to our senses before it is too late. Like you I’ll not give up, even when the struggle seems hopeless.


    1. I definitely hear you on the Grrrrrrrr! I spent the day writing because I couldn’t stand listening to the news anymore. I’ve been feeling a slow burn going all week. GRRRRRRRRR!

      The department policy wasn’t about me being a woman. The policy applied to any graduate student. Graduate students weren’t considered responsible enough to run research projects. But I didn’t let their policy stand in my way! Belief in our ideas is a powerful thing!

  3. I have found ‘hope’ to be a two-edged sword. As some say ‘Hope is not a strategy’, and this is especially true if it leads to inaction and dismissal/downplaying of impending crises. Many people ignore risk ‘hoping’ things will turn out for the best.

    So, can the risks/problems (mostly of our own making) be mitigated? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Even if we can agree on ‘solutions’ (or even what the ‘problems’ are), our attempts to alter a complex system may, in fact, increase the fragility of a system and end up bringing about the crisis we are trying to avert. I believe this is especially true in the case of ‘growth’ especially economic growth–something our political/financial/technocratic classes pursue and champion at every turn.

    I am reminded of what Donella Meadows (co-author of The Limits to Growth) argues in Thinking in Systems: A Primer : “…a clear leverage point: growth. Not only population growth, but economic growth. Growth has costs as well as benefits, and we typically don’t count the costs—among which are poverty and hunger, environmental destruction and so on—the whole list of problems we are trying to solve with growth! What is needed is much slower growth, very different kinds of growth, and in some cases no growth or negative growth. The world leaders are correctly fixated on economic growth as the answer to all problems, but they’re pushing with all their might in the wrong direction. …leverage points frequently are not intuitive. Or if they are, we too often use them backward, systematically worsening whatever problems we are trying to solve.”

    So long as we are caught up in the perpetual growth machine, I believe we are fubar. Can humanity extricate itself from this far-reaching paradigm? I am doubtful. Certainly not as a whole. There may be small pockets of success in detaching from the ‘Matrix’ but for the most part pre/history shows that every complex society eventually falls prey to decline/collapse. If not because of overshooting their natural carrying capacity, then because of the increasing fragility created by declining marginal utility as archaeologist Joseph Tainter has proposed.

    I have little ‘hope’ that we will find an agreed upon ‘solution’ to our impending crises and minimize the risks inherent in the complex systems we are impacted by. This does not mean I will give up in my attempts to build resiliency and self-sufficiency into our family’s lifestyle. I will plan for the worst and ‘hope’ for the best…

    1. Steve,
      I agree with all of your points. Inaction in the face of uncertainty is not going to help. Wrong action may do more harm than good.

      A Great Depression style economic collapse would probably reduce economic growth to the point where GHG emissions decline, but it’s not a solution I would advocate. Although Trump’s policies may take us there. I agree that population pressure is exacerbating problems, although this can often become a blame game that gets us no where. I’d love to see more comprehensive family planning advocated in every country.

      For me and my family, we follow a similar path as you, build resiliency and self-sufficiency, hope for the best and plan for the worst. I suspect the ride is going to get much bumpier very soon. It hasn’t helped the world or US efforts to reverse climate change to have the current administration in office. This falls under changes that make things much worse!

      In my community I try to educate and encourage energy conservation and renewable energy, local food production, and healthier eating. My vision of a sustainable future contains fewer but healthier humans on earth, less global trade and more local subsistence living. Some of us will choose to live simpler lifestyles, others will be forced to. Some of us will choose to eat better and get healthier, others will depend on a failing health care system. If the support they rely on goes away, few options will remain.

      I’ve often thought the hardest part for humanity as climate change really begins to bite back is when we simply don’t have the resources to help others. It won’t be easy to abandon people to their doom. That is why I will continue to work to motivate as well as educate people. Your website appears to be doing something similar.

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