CMU Professor Details Evolution of Human Traits

Article excerpt

Think about all of man's accomplishments, from the greatest symphonies and works of art to the exploration of space to the feats of skill on athletic fields.

Then think about the most mundane of situations -- walking across the street to the local coffee barista, holding that cup of java in your hand, then sipping the coffee.

None of these things would be possible without the big toe.

Yes, the little piggy that went to market, the captain of the toes, as "Seinfeld" character George Costanza called it, is responsible for the advance of mankind beyond primitive creatures.

"Around six million years ago, we began to develop this large appendage at the end of our feet that enabled us to stand up," says Chip Walter, the author of "Thumbs, Toes and Tears -- And Other Traits That Make Us Human." " Every time you take a step, 40 percent of your weight is supported by your big toe. That means it would be very, very difficult to walk on these long stilts of articulated bone that we call legs if we didn't have that toe."

Walter, an adjunct professor of writing at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and senior manager of strategic communications for UPMC, has worked as a science journalist, documentary filmmaker and bureau chief for CNN. His previous book, "I'm Working on That," was a collaboration with William Shatner about how the "Star Trek" series anticipated technological advances.

"Thumbs, Toes and Tears" was inspired by a documentary he was filming for PBS about the evolution of intelligence.

"You just kind of begin to look at the behavior of humans," Walter says, "and you see what they've accomplished and you go, 'How did we get so different?' We tend to take this stuff for granted because we're born this way. We tend to think it's normal, but it's not."

According to Walter, almost everything mankind has accomplished can be traced back to the evolution of the big toe. Because the toe enabled man to walk upright, it freed his hands -- which previously had been used as feet-like appendages -- to carry and make things. Sexuality, eye-to-eye contact and facial expressions evolved because humans were upright, as did elongated necks, which made speech possible.

Opposable thumbs also evolved, which enabled man to be able to make tools, which led to "a mind that could think in terms of a human being or a creature that's doing something and is separate from the world and could make things in sequence," Walter says.

" ... You have to put one thing into place before you put another thing into place. That is what language requires. And it turns out that our brain, if you look at the evolution of the human brain, the part of the brain that controls fine motor controls and hands, lays right next to the part of the brain that controls language. …