The human hand is good at grasping. Therefore, God.

PlosOne has published an article on the Biomechanical Characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living. There’s nothing wrong with the data that I can see, but the authors do make a surprising leap in the abstract and conclusion.

In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years. Moreover, functional explanations for the mechanical architecture of the muscular-articular connection of the human hand can also aid in developing multifunctional robotic hands by designing them with similar basic architecture.

The paper is a technical structure and function analysis of the bones and muscles of the human hand. There’s nothing in the paper that probes the creator for their intent and goals of proper design, or that assesses the the hypothesis of design vs. evolution — in fact, they seem to want to have it both ways, ascribing its functional adaptedness to both.

The authors are from the Institute of Rehabilitation and Medical Robotics, State Key Lab of Digital Manufacturing Equipment and Technology, Huazhong University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, China. Engineers. Somehow, I am not surprised.

But be prepared: this is the kind of thing creationists love to cite, and I expect it will make it to the Discovery Institute’s list of ID-friendly scientific publications. Just note that it says nothing to support the god hypothesis at all.

I did like one of the comments there.

Humans occasionally use their hand as a tool of masturbation, one of “a multitude of daily tasks” performed “in a comfortable way”.

Clearly, the divine purpose of the human hand is masturbation. I look forward to their analysis of the proper design by the Creator of the human tongue. Unfortunately, all the evidence says the human penis was a botched design, as the development of multifunctional robotic penises has completely abandoned the original inspiration and seems to be pursuing an evolutionary path rooted in the Hitachi Magic Wand.


  1. jaybee says

    This is surprising for a paper coming from China. Have evangelist already built a beachhead there?

  2. says

    Humans aren’t the only animals with hands which are good at grasping. Rats don’t have thumbs, but they have a death grasp you wouldn’t believe.

  3. Amphiox says

    The human hand is hardly well designed. It has at least one unnecessary finger (which in many people cannot even extend independently of the others)

  4. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    I look forward to their analysis of the proper design by the Creator of the human tongue.

    According to Creationists, also for masturbation. Of a sort.

  5. says

    This is surprising for a paper coming from China. Have evangelist already built a beachhead there?

    They have been doing their social destruction for a very long time. Christian missionaries helped make the Boxer Rebellion – one of the largest slaughters in human history – worse than it might otherwise have been. The rebellion was explicitly anti-christian, which ought to tell you something about the degree to which the missionaries had peddled their bullshit, It was patterned similarly to european wars of religion – the underlying conflict was a question of church and state entanglemen, dispossession, and promotion of a preferred religion. And of course the TaiPing Rebellion, which also caused massive loss of life, was inspired by a crypto-christian group — imagine if the mormon wars had engulfed the entire USA and resulted in 50 million dead.

    Go, christians!

  6. Broken Things says

    Engineers. Somehow, I am not surprised.

    Why are you doing this? Why do you think a person can’t be an engineer, grasp fundamental science and simultaneously reject supernatural explanations? I know a lot of very smart people that go by the name ‘engineer’ that aren’t just automatons blindly repeating the actions they learned in school and ignoring the social implications of what they do.

  7. says

    Broken Things @ 7:

    Why do you think a person can’t be an engineer, grasp fundamental science and simultaneously reject supernatural explanations?

    I know that’s possible, however, in a life of knowing a whole lot of engineers, I’d put such examples into the more exception than category. Engineers tend to be prone to some, um, interesting beliefs.

  8. Dreaming of an Atheistic Newtopia says

    Trolling? I wouldn’t put it past some scientists to introduce a sentence like that out of the blue just for the lolz…

  9. Saad says

    There’s no need for a complex, technical paper for this.

    Ray Comfort already settled the matter.

  10. Le Chifforobe says

    This is surprising for a paper coming from China. Have evangelist already built a beachhead there?

    Well, the PLoS editorial offices are in the USA and UK. Have you heard the BBC World Service’s US election coverage, particularly the “man on the street” interviews? They probably thought they HAD to credit Jebus to get published.

  11. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.

    NB the embolded word that the cherry pickers will have to intentionally avoid (ID, I’m looking at )
    It is also perfectly reasonable to read “the Creator” euphemistically, as in the DOI where the authors were trying to avoid deism in that doc. no need for mistranslation to attempt to account for that squigly phrase getting thrown in.

  12. opposablethumbs says

    I too would like to thank you for that perfectly conceived and executed last sentence.

  13. cmutter says

    As an engineer, I took the “Engineers.” quote as a slam on intellectual arrogance – the idea that because we’re good at figuring out skeletons / antennas / Python or whatever, that we’re good at figuring out *anything*, and therefore experts in any field are just missing whatever our “obvious” insight is.

    You can see it in econ, finance, and politics – engineers who think Rand-style libertarianism and/or a monetary gold standard are good ideas are common enough to be a stereotype.

    XKCD hit that recently: “The stock market is made of numbers. I’m good with numbers. Therefore, I should be good with – wait a minute, where did all my money go?”

  14. cmutter says

    @1, @15: cue PZ’s guest comic for (obviously NSFW) on the vibrator phylogenetic tree.

  15. bryanfeir says

    Regarding the complaints about engineers: have people forgotten the Salem Hypothesis already?

    The Salem Hypothesis is the observation of the apparent correlation between the engineering trade and creationist beliefs (possibly due to crank magnetism, this can also include climate change denial and other crackpot beliefs). It holds that people who claim science expertise, whilst advocating creationism, tend to be formally trained as engineers (with a possible exception of chemical engineers). This hypothesis does not address whether engineers tend to be creationists (the converse); however, it has been speculated that engineering predisposes people to a creation science view.

    See also PZ’s comment from ten years ago at

  16. prae says

    A good engineer would have allowed for all fingers to move independanlty, instead of interconnecting all those tendons. Also, why only one opposable digit? With five available, I’d build a hand with three fingers and two thumbs. Or maybe even do some kind of a three way configuration…

  17. abutsimehc says

    The late, great Christopher Hitchens once penned a very enlightening essay in which he pointed out the coincidence of the evolution of the length of the human forearm and the location of the human “pleasure zone” in our crotch(es). Take your pick: either the “accident” of evolution OR the hand (!) of a benevolent Lord God YHVH! :-)

  18. busterggi says

    RE: prae @ 19. Modular fingertips would have been convenient too – can never find a Philip’s-head screwdriver or the right size wrench when I need one.

  19. says

    I followed the link to the original article and I could not believe it. In the lab we often joke around about PloS One, it’s one of those journals that our bosses never want to publish in but that PloS Genetics loves to refer you to if they dont want to publish your paper. It has a light air of desperation around it but not a journal that we had written off entirely as unreliable. Until now. I cannot believe that this passed peer review. Do they even read the bloody things?!

  20. Lofty says

    Putting in a creator reference makes a paper acceptable to a wider range of morons Americans so is good business sense. I watched a short doco of the Grand Canyon the other day that was similarly supplied with a couple of godly references to keep the rubes happy.

  21. Artor says

    Hmm, I have occasional carpal tunnel issues, and am currently growing back a lost fingernail. These seem like major design faults that a competent creator could have worked out in a few generations, let alone millions of years. Also, as mentioned at #19 and #21, There are a lot of obvious improvements that could be made.

  22. says

    Thank God for the elegant and modular design of the hand. I’m a Level 27 Wanker and, thanks to their analog grip settings and ability to closely conform to the individual topography of my penis (not to mention the handy pommel at the end of the penis itself – nice one G-Man!), neither of my hands has ever slipped off and slapped me in the face.

  23. says

    I thought the comment about how robot designers should use the human hand as a model to design from was interesting. But if someone were to design a robotic hand that was miles superior to the human hand… wouldn’t that indicate that any creator was inept?

    As some who have pointed out above, there are a number of design improvements to the current model. Just think if someone came up with an entirely different, and profoundly superior idea for a hand?

  24. Rob Grigjanis says

    Weak Frail Anthropic Principle: The parameters defining this Universe are finely tuned to allow the existence of wankers.

    Strong Forte Anthropic Principle: The purpose of the Universe is to create wankers.

  25. Rob Grigjanis says

    Hands, fine. But I’d like to have a chat with the fucker who designed knees and backs.

  26. Menyambal says

    Oh, now, this is easy to test!

    Place your hand flat on the table, palm down, fingers spread. Since the middle finger is associated with obscenity, sex and general dirtiness, raise up enough to tuck it back under so the fingertip is against the palm, and you are on its first knuckle when you go back down to fingers touching the table. Now, with that out of the way, consider that your thumb is what separates us from the other animals and gives your hand power, and thump the table with your thumb. Opposite that is your little pinky finger, associated with dignity and refinement, so gently tap the table with your pinky. The forefinger symbolizes direction and reading and science and intellect, so give the table a few decisive raps with your pointer finger. The ring finger is associated with marriage and churches and religion and God, so lovingly tap it on the table in homage to its maker.

    How well did your hand work, and how well is it designed?

  27. chigau (違う) says

    Menyambal #30
    I like your scenario.
    I have always done this trick in bars and the rubes think the problem is that they’re drunk.

  28. rrhain says

    @30, Menyambal:
    Aww! You beat me to it! I was going to point this out as yet another example of the, “If you’re going to insist that this was designed, why was it designed so poorly?”

    The ligaments in the hand are such that the one that controls your ring finger is bifurcated. Thus, it is extremely difficult to control the ring finger independently.

    Any intelligent designer would have made independent controlling structures.

  29. Menyambal says

    Chigau, I used that trick once to show a woman that she “really” didn’t want to get married. We’ve been married six years now.

    I tried to come up with some good patter here, but it needs work.

  30. cmutter says

    There are existing robot hands that use suction for gripping, so the existing human hand design isn’t even necessarily optimal for wanking.

  31. springa73 says

    I wonder if one reason that engineers may lean toward creationism is that it is so analogous to their own profession. Their job is to create complex systems using their own intelligence, so it seems that any complex system must be created by an intelligence. From that perspective, it is very difficult to accept that complex systems can emerge on their own without conscious design.

    Also, I’ve read that engineers who are religious often have a tendency to support fundamentalist positions. The theory I’ve heard about this is that engineers tend to interpret texts very literally, so they read religious texts as a sort of technical manual, rather than in a symbolic or allegorical way. Literal interpretation of religious texts is one of the main features of modern-day fundamentalism, so those engineers who are religious are more likely to lean in that direction.

  32. RobertL says

    Koalas have three fingers and two thumbs.

    I for one welcome our new marsupial overlords.

  33. Menyambal says

    springa73 @ 35, I agree with you about engineers. I used to work with a Baptist deacon in production engineering – wow. When I was in Technical College, I could guess a professor’s religion just by their approach to the work. Not all engineers, of course, but a pretty strong correlation between them and a certain flavor of religion. God was an engineer, and engineers were like God.

  34. Pierce R. Butler says

    The opening line of John Varley’s Steel Beach seems apropos here:

    “In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.

  35. David Marjanović says

    “In light of the concerns identified, the PLOS ONE editors have decided to retract the article, the retraction is being processed and will be posted as soon as possible. We apologize for the errors and oversight leading to the publication of this paper.”

    From here.

    Direct link to the open-access “paper”. There are now 45 comments, several of them with a bunch of replies.

  36. jesse says

    I suspect that this is a mistranslation issue. I actually asked the authors about it, basically saying, “look, do you guys get that this is sounding like Creationism?”

    I suspect they do not. The author Caihua Xiong emailed me back to note that none of the authors speaks English as their first language, and in fact the email is in English that betrays technical translation skill but probably a not-so-good grasp of how to translate certain idioms without sounding odd.

    Before any of you gloat I suggest you try turning your scientific papers into coherent Chinese without any supernatural-sounding references. Believe it or not it is harder than it sounds. Often in English we see biology papers referring to what organs or structures are “evolved for” something, it implies some direction and purpose even though we don’t mean it. It’s just a phrase, an idiom. PZ spends a lot of time talking about how that conception is wrong, but that doesn’t alter the fact that English connotations are what they are. (Just as in English the close sounds of “nature” and “nurture” create all kinds of problems for conceptualizing either in popular literature).

    I suspect that whatever translation software — or the translator — they were using wasn’t up to the task.

    (There’s an old joke about an early translator for Chinese, which the US Intelligence community of course was very interested in as at the time there were few in the service who spoke the language. They put in the phrase “Out of sight out of mind” and got back Chinese characters. Being unable to read them they put the Chinese back into the machine. It spat out “Invisible idiot.” The tale is apocryphal of course, but it illustrates the pitfalls that await any translator who isn’t rather careful and it shows why computers have usually been pretty bad at it. Google Translate works from a corpus of texts, and does the work statistically, but you’ll notice that some languages come out better than others, largely ones that have a lot of stuff written in them available on the Web. So Russian comes out OK, Chinese sort of ok, but Hungarian or Cebuano? Less so).

    I can think of a few phrases in English that when literally translated might sound simply odd in other languages. Take this from a Nature paper:

    “We find that sex alters the molecular signatures of evolution by changing the spectrum of mutations that fix, and confirm theoretical predictions that it does so by alleviating clonal interference. We also show that substantially deleterious mutations hitchhike to fixation in adapting asexual populations.” (bolding is mine)

    Now what would happen if you tried to translate this into Chinese, and didn’t use a good translator? Here’s what Google Translate gets you for “sex”:

    性別 –gender, sex, sexuality

    性 –sex, nature, character, gender, quality

    性交 –sexual intercourse, sex, coitus, fuck, coition, venery

    性欲 — libido, sexuality, sex

    Any of you know the connotations of any of these? I sure don’t. It would take a decent human translator to get it right as using the dictionary that Google has any of them could in a literal sense fit. But which one you choose will change the sense of the sentence from the Nature paper pretty radically. And “Hitchhike” is even worse. Type it as one word and you get 搭脚儿. Type it as two and you get 加息顺利. I haven’t the faintest idea of how those sound to a Chinese speaker in combination with “fixation” and I doubt anyone here does either. But I suspect that absent someone who spoke and wrote fluently both Chinese and English we’d get results that would make more than one Chinese scientist giggle.

    None of this excuses the editors who should have caught this. I emailed the editor involved and haven’t heard back.

    PZ, I respect you a lot, but I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t email the authors and just plain ask them. I can see why people don’t like PLOS One, and lord knows I agree that open-access journals are not always an unmixed blessing. (See! a supernatural reference! I must be a fundamentalist!) You’re not a reporter and you aren’t bound by the same ethics, but when I saw it the first thing I did was email the author and Dr Xiong was gracious enough.

    I’m spending a lot of time at this because the paper itself — as you, PZ, have noted — seems fine in most other respects, the “meat” of it doesn’t bring up ID in any real way. It’s a perfectly (to my admittedly nonprofessional eye) ordinary paper. Cut the offending sentences and would you have even noticed it?

    When something like this from a foreign language shows up only in the abstract and conclusion — the two places where it’s easier to throw a little personality into a paper — I’d be skeptical that it’s a bunch of ID-spouting creationists. Especially given that this paper is from China, a country with little tradition of this kind of thing. Yes there were Christian missionaries there (and are a few now) but they haven’t made a ton of headway, not in a country where most people are Buddhist or Taoist, if they profess any religion at all. (The official atheism is still quite strong).

    Here’s another small bit of evidence: note that they mention design and creator in the same paragraph when talking about robotic hands. That says to me that the original reference might have been to something along those lines, rather than god, and it got messed up on the way between Chinese and English.

  37. jeffreylewis says

    Regarding engineers being more likely to be creationists – I haven’t seen any data to indicate that engineers are any more likely to be creationists, only anecdotes on comment threads. In my own personal experience as an engineer, it seems like creationists in our ranks are a smaller percentage than the general population (but again – just an anecdote). In fact, I can only think of one engineer I know personally who I’m positive is a creationist. The rest either accept theistic evolution or just plain old evolution with no intervention from gods. In a few attempts at googling “creationism by college degree”, I haven’t really found much. My suspicion is that engineers simply fall into the same pattern as most other college majors – increasing education in general tends to decrease acceptance of creatiosm. Sciences more closely related to evolutionary biology also tend to decrease acceptance of creationism. So, if engineers do fall into the normal spectrum, they’d be more likely to be creationists than biologists, but less likely than someone without a college degree.

    Anyone know of any surveys that actually break down acceptance of creationism by college major?