Thursday, May 13, 2010

Thumbs, or, "Beam me up, Scotty!"

Elizabeth Zelvin

Remember Captain Kirk’s tag line from the original Star Trek? “Beam me up, Scotty, there’s no intelligent life down here.” What does it have to do with thumbs? I’ve been thinking about the nature of intelligent life lately as I cope with the early stages of arthritis in those oh so useful thumbs.

How did the crew of the Enterprise know intelligent life was missing from a new planet? Well, maybe they measured the brain wave activity of the local fauna with one of their handy electronic devices. But how would an alien visitor from outside our solar system know that we, humans, are intelligent life? For one thing, we make things. We make a lot of different things. We hope an interstellar visitor would check out our cities, our roads and bridges, our cars and planes and art and music, and say, “Hmm. Smart species—let’s make contact,” rather than, “Beam me up, Xroggh, there’s no intelligent life on Earth.”

Our capacity to build and use tools lies partly in our brain power and partly in those handy opposable thumbs. Dolphins are smart—maybe even smarter than we are—but with flippers rather than thumbs, they haven’t been able to create devices to protect themselves from us. Monkeys are dextrous—they can swing hand over hand between trees and peel a banana—but they have yet to invent a refrigerator or an aerial tramway. Nor have they come up with the works of Shakespeare or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s the combination of our ability to think and our ability to manipulate stuff that has resulted in our being, for better or worse, the dominant species on our planet.

To return to Star Trek for a moment, it’s remarkable how many of the devices the original show envisioned have become reality since it began in 1966. The fact that doors slide open as we approach them has not been a marvel for a long time. Nor does a tricorder look particularly impressive to the owner of an iPhone. We—the collective human we—have even accomplished cloning, at least up to the level of a sheep. We’ve done just about everything they dreamed up except for beaming up itself: transporting matter, including humans, without damage. Faxes, yes. People, no. We’ve even done some things the show did not anticipate, like the extreme miniaturization of computers and the use of thumbs to keyboard. And so we’re back to thumbs.

My arthritis, though mild so far, is truly a pain in the joints. I have to wear restrictive splints all night and part of every day to keep my thumbs quiet. I’ve given up knitting, and I haven’t touched my guitar since I got the diagnosis. I leave the child-proof caps off my pill bottles and try to figure out ways to open jars and doorknobs and plastic containers without overexerting my thumbs. I’ve discovered that we use those suckers (no pun intended) for everything.

In short, I’ve been downgraded. As my husband put it, “You’re not a primate any more. You’re just a mammal.”


Marina McIntire said...

Oh dear! I'm so sorry to hear this -- but most especially about not knitting. Lots of doctors and lots of people with arthritis find that knitting is *helpful*, rather than harmful. I don't even play a doc on tv, but maybe you could think about it.
mm, who went for ten weeks without the use of her right thumb, due to gamekeeper's what's-it.

Julia Buckley said...

This is a fascinating post, Liz. But I am sorry to hear about the arthritis. Have you heard of those magnets people can wear that are supposed to bring relief?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

So far, I'm trusting my terrific certified hand therapist, who suggests big fat needles if I knit at all (no good for socks or lace) and has me soaking, massaging, doing ultrasound, e-stim, lasers, wearing splints, and lots of different kinds of exercise, but no magnets. And I'm cautiously playing guitar and gardening one half hour at a time. Luckily, the computer keyboard is not a problem.

kathy d. said...

Sorry about the arthritis, but your husband has a great sense of humor; that must help somehow.

lil Gluckstern said...

So sorry to hear about your arthritis. I hope your therapy helps. My daughter worked for the Star Trek production company, and she took me on a tour. It was amazing how realistic everything looked (except for the sparkles on the black curtain). I agree that so much has come to be that this generation is probably too jaded to appreciate the gizmos we now have. Thank goodness you can use your keyboard ;-)