The human race has recently discovered what its thumbs are for. Texters and mobile emailers are becoming indigenously thumbidextrous; the nimblest communicating complex messages with the fluency of speech. Before texting, thumbs were the unsung heroes of our bodies. But without the ability to grip, we would never have swung through the trees to explore the world, grabbed branches to create fires and build structures, strangled sabre toothed tigers, and wielded spears and clubs. Most of us are successfully weaned from thumb sucking, but substitute this infantile comfort with addictive oral fixations. Roman emperors decided the fates of Christians with the apocryphal thumbs-up / thumbs-down verdict, and I once knew a lumberjack whose toe was grafted onto his hand after losing his thumb in a chainsaw incident. Back in the 70s I ‘thumbed’ across America clutching a card signposted to ANYWHERE.
The relentless ascendency of fingers has been driven by the super-sensitivity of the nerve endings and their proficiency for touching, tickling, winkling, fiddling, tweaking, arousing, soothing, grooming, caressing, probing, exploring, picking, scratching, tapping, meddling, stimulating and latterly clicking mice. Fingers are also used to convey social standing and cultural identity. Rings signal whether we are married, engaged, adored or loaded, and every bankrupt shop in Hoxton resurfaces as a badass nail salon. Fingers are constantly busy gesticulating feelings, desires, commands and interpretations, and a rich vocabulary of non-verbal gestures such as FUCK OFF and Can you believe it, I was on the PHONE at the time, plus a bewildering variety of salutes, blessings and sign languages. Even the relationship between the length of index and ring fingers dictated by exposure to oestrogen in the womb decides all sorts of things about us – from our predisposition to psychological disorders to innate competitiveness.
I snapped this picture of Galileo’s pickled middle finger in the Museo di Storia della Scienza – Firenze. But surely no one ever pointed out any marvel of the firmament with a middle finger, so perhaps Galileo was sending a veiled message to Pope Urban VIII who condemned him to life imprisonment for advocating heliocentrism (the belief that the earth orbits the sun), which of course it does at 66,000 miles per hour.