Brother, Can You Spare a Banana?

In yesterday's New York Times, science columnist John Tierney notes that the gesture of the upturned palm, "signifying 'Gimme,'" is "one of the oldest and most widely understood signals in the world." He claims it's "activated by neural circuits inherited from ancient reptiles that abased themselves before larger animals":

The palm-up gesture is what the anthropologist David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., calls a "gestural byproduct" of the circuits in the brain and spinal cord that protected vertebrates hundreds of millions of years ago.

Confronted with a threat, ancient lizards would instinctively bend their spine and limbs to press their bodies closer to the ground, protecting the neck and head and signaling submission to a larger animal. This crouch display is the opposite of the high-stand display, the aggressive posture of a stallion or a gorilla raising its chest and head to appear larger.

The human remnant of the crouch display is a shrug of the shoulders, which lowers the head and rotates the forearms outwards so that the palms face up. Conversely, the high-stand display persists in humans as a rotation of the forearms and palms in the opposite direction, producing the domineering palm-down gesture used by a boss slapping the conference table or an orator commanding quiet from his audience.

I'm no anthropologist, but I always thought the palm-up gesture came from holding out your hand so that the person from whom you want something can put it there. That, at least, is what I have in mind when I ask someone for some cash or the salt. Isn't it more plausible to suppose that the metaphorical meanings of the gesture evolved from its use by creatures that hold things in their hands than to think we're echoing the submissive displays of lizards? 

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  • ||

    I don't know, but the "Gimme your paw" thing always came pretty easy to any of my dogs, and believe me, I'm no Caeser Milan.

  • fyodor||

    Isn't it more plausible to suppose that the metaphorical meanings of the gesture evolved from its use by creatures that hold things in their hands than to think we're echoing the submissive displays of lizards?

    Probably. But isn't it more profitable for anthropologists to come up with (and for science journalists to report) counter-intuitive mumbo-jumbo that you and I would never have dreamed of? Most definitely!!

    (BTW, consistent with my Craig post a couple of threads down, I think this happens mostly at an unconcious level. After all, would YOU want to be AWARE of how full of shit you were??)

  • ||

    I'm no anthropologist, but I always thought the palm-up gesture came from holding out your hand so that the person from whom you want something can put it there.

    Good luck writing your dissertation and getting a research grant on that.

    I used to work in the Periodicals department of a state university. I started reading dozens of academic journals out of sheer boredom every month. I've have never wallowed in such a large pile of unmitigated bullshit. Academic publishing is one of the biggest rackets out there, but the money is only so-so.

  • ||

    I can't tell if they are focusing on the "hand out" gesture you get from a beggar or the "I don't know" gesture of the person with hands to either side and shrugging the shoulders. One indicates give me something and the other indicates a lack of knowledge or authority.

  • The Extispicator||

    Whatever anyone thinks of the evolution/creation debate, I am sick of every scientific study being traced back to evolution in one way or another. It's all pure speculation, but this one takes the cake.

  • ||

    Does the palm face up or down when you are signaling to the next stall over?

  • edna||

    a perfect just-so story.

  • ||

    The Extispicator,

    Yeah, and why do all these people keep saying the Earth goes around the Sun? It's all pure speculation.

    Darwinism's just a religion, too.

  • ||

    This article is true. It is analogous to the origin of the middle finger (i.e., the bird), which started as early apes would stick their middle fingers up John Tierney's butt looking for small cocks or nuts.

  • The Extispicator||

    I don't have a problem with the Earth going around the Sun. But I wouldn't by into an article saying that is why our heads are round and why we like cookies so much.

    Darwinism becomes a religion when every new discovery becomes speculatively linked to it.

  • ||

    The Extispicator,

    Your argument might hold water if this was an article about geology or astrophysics. It's an article about evolutionary biology. Believe what you want, but it's a fine little case of special pleading to complain that an article about driving keeps bring up cars and trucks.

  • ||

    "bringing up" My genotype has yet to adapt to typing. Maybe in a few generations.

  • The Extispicator||

    You brought up geology and astrophysics - I continued the analogy.

    It is simply unscientific to note a human behavior, find a similar animal behavior and conclude that our behavior must be a result of having evolved from that animal.

    Everyone else here sees the idiocy of this article.

  • ||

    I don't know why, but Lamar's comment is the best thing I've seen on here in weeks.

  • The Extispicator||

    Humans like to drive cars that have four wheels. Lizards have four legs. We must have designed cars like that because of a genetic link we have with lizards.

  • ||

    Oh, I see.

    Onward, Christian soldiers.

  • edna||

    pot dealers sell green stuff and use scales. lizards are green and have scales. this is why humans like to smoke pot.

  • rho||

    I believe that the rest of you evolved from monkeys, but I am the special creation of God.

  • ||

    While I am generally against the speculation disguised as science that sometimes passes under the rubric of evolutionary explanation, this ain't it. It has been demonstrated which neural circuits are involved in this behavior, and it has been shown that they are highly conserved (though Tierney muddles some things, e.g. the cortical regions involved in primate speech and gesture aren't present in reptiles b/c they don't have a cortex per se). Further, as the article mentioned, the gesture works the same way for both humans and chimps and even between humans and chimps. I've certainly seen it plenty of times in "lower" primates like capuchins as well.

  • Robert||

    Jacob, your explan'n of the palm-up gesture wins hands down. (Oh, I'm so funnneeeee....) But seriously, it's extremely hard to believe that this behavior could've been conserved going so far back, when lizards and even dogs & cats can't even supinate their paws that much.

    It would be interesting to find some conscious human behavior that's genetic like that, because it would be a true instinct, and as far as I'm concerned, nobody has demonstrated a single true instinct in humans. By instinct, I mean a complex behavior (too complex to be reflex) that is innate. It's clear that some features of our mentation & behavior is instinctive, i.e. programmed, such as a positive preference for sweet tastes and a negative preference against bitter ones, but those are not in themselves behaviors, let alone complex ones. They may, however, result in behaviors -- just not thru instinct.

  • ||

    I can see the connection between the shrugging of the shoulders and the act of a lizardlike animal lowering its body to the ground. It's basically the movement: shoulders go up and in, head goes down, and maybe elbows bend too.

    I still don't get the connetion to the upraised hand, palm up, though. Most animals can't even rotate their wrists to that degree. Maybe lizards can, but not when on their bellies doing a submission gesture, I'm pretty sure.

    Also, what cliff said.

  • Robert||

    BTW, you can see some gestures conserved, with interesting variations thru descent. A wide variety of animals wag their tails to communicate, usually as some variation of "hello".

    Dogs & cats each show "I'm friendly, not a threat, don't hurt me" by rolling over at least enough to show their chests. Dogs may do it part way, supinating in front while staying on their feet in back, or all the way by flopping down & showing their belly too. Cats do it in an exaggerated way by moving some distance away from whomever they're signaling to and then rolling back & forth. Dogs expect whoever they're signalling to to come up & sniff or pet their chest while they're doing that, while cats expect you to keep your distance while they're showing you. But it's basically the same thing, and I think dogs & cats understand each other when they do it, albeit with the possibility of confusion of the signaler by the approach part as noted.

  • ||

    Props from Stevo? That made my day.

  • ed||

    When I want something I hold my palm down.
    It's all about taking, not asking.
    I am not a lizard. I am...a man!

  • ||

    This reminds me of Kirk Cameron's banana video on YouTube. Can't link it from school, but this seems to follow the same type of lazy "because I said so" reasoning, albeit for a different purpose.

    Just search for "kirk cameron" and "banana" on YouTube.

  • Space Monkey||

    This is a truly horrible article.

    How was the lizard to chimp connection made? They don't mention lizard MRIs or studies of wrist anatomy between gorillas and humans, or really anything besides a few anecdotes good for the water cooler.

    Also, chimps are pretty damn smart, maybe they just realize that people can have intentions, or can only carry things in their palms, and oblige in a non-instinctual manner.

    It all gives evolution a bad name, like making up stories about how Manx cats lack tails, without any systematic inquiry.

  • Space Monkey||

    I'm an idiot that just paraphrased Jacob's argument. I read the post. But by the time I read the article, I had forgotten the post.

  • The Wine Commonsewer||

    I always thought the palm-up gesture came from holding out your hand so that the person from whom you want something can put it there

    And you would be correctomundo.

  • ||

    Thanks, Johnny D. John Tierney irks me.

    A good article will make me think I'm smarter than before having read it. John Tierney writes articles that make me think he was smarter before having written it.

  • ||

    The "palms up" gesture can also indicate that your intentions are peaceful. If you reach towards a person or an animal like a cat or dog with your palms down, that animal is likely to back away to avoid being grabbed.

    When my cat is being skittish and I want to pet him, I hold my hand out with the palm up. Usually, he will come forward to sniff it, and then let me pet him. If I reach for him with palms down, he runs.

    If a stranger comes up to me on the street, arm extended and palm up, I assume s/he wants money. While I might step around the person, I wouldn't usually back away. If someone approaches me with arm extended and palm down, I'll back away every time.

    One thing I will never do is sniff that person's hand.

    Anyway, is this to any degree hardwired? I don't know. Shrugging the shoulders makes a person appear unthreatening but protecting the neck is an extra step and I would view it as at least partially independent. Felines definitely do it to protect their necks (cats can snap another animal's spinal cord with a single bite to the back of the neck because their canines can slip through vertebrae). Like Stevo, I see a difference between the shrugging motion and the palms turning upwards though. I can shrug my shoulders in a very exaggerated fashion, but my arms don't rotate nor palms face upward unless I intentionally rotate my wrists too.

  • DannyK||

    The author is obviously a closet David Icke fan, and is referring to the heavy infusion of Annunaki space lizard DNA into the heredity of the ruling class... particularly the Bush family, who are either half-breeds or, in fact, pure-blood lizardmen wearing heavy makeup.

  • ||

    One thing I will never do is sniff that person's hand.


    But where's you're sense of adventure?


    Smell the glove!

  • ||

    I might still have a sense of adventure, but being panhandled by dirty alcoholics just doesn't stimulate me like it used to. I wonder what it would take.

    A further thought about cats -- shrugging might be submissive in lizards, but it isn't in cats. When they do the posture to protect their necks they're not communicating that they don't pose a threat. It's part of their "I will kill you if you take one step further" stance. While they're crouching they are also poised to jump forward, their ears are flat, eyes bugged, and they are growling. So if it's submissive in lizards it isn't in one species of mammals at least.

  • ||

    I can't tell if they are focusing on the "hand out" gesture you get from a beggar or the "I don't know" gesture of the person with hands to either side and shrugging the shoulders.

    Given that the article in question describes the gesture as "a primal message signifying 'Gimme'" -- a description referenced by Sullum in this very post -- I would think you've got your answer.

  • ||

    I might still have a sense of adventure, but being panhandled by dirty alcoholics just doesn't stimulate me like it used to. I wonder what it would take.

    Smoking ground-up moon rocks works for me.

  • ||

    Holding your palm up to receive something is a different gesture from the shrugging, upturned palms, "Hey, what am I supposed to do about it?" gesture.

    You don't shrug your shoulders and tuck your head into your neck when you hold your palm out to ask for something.

  • ||

    Look at the pictures of the people with animal heads that accompany the column.

    Do those animals look like they're asking for something? Like they're saying "Gimme?"

    Since when is saying give that to me a gesture of submission?

    Has anyone ever seen a beggar make that gesture while asking for money?

    This column is like a kaleidiscope of stupidiy. Look at it slightly differently, and it and you see a amazing new pattern of stupidity.

    Is this John Tierney, Science Reporter the same guy who was hired to be the libertarian on the editorial page?

  • ||

    Whatever anyone thinks of the evolution/creation debate

    There are certainly valid reasons to be skeptical of these claims, but anyone who starts a post assuming there is such an "evolution/creation" debate is not likely to have his objection taken all that seriously.

    It is simply unscientific to note a human behavior, find a similar animal behavior and conclude that our behavior must be a result of having evolved from that animal.

    I'm sure that is true but I'm equally sure that no one did any such thing so I'm not sure what your objection is. Also, there is a difference between "evolved from", and sharing a common ancestor with, another species. Nobody claims we "evolved from" lizards or monkeys because we share some particular trait or neural wiring.

    I don't have a problem with the Earth going around the Sun.

    Good to know - and how are you with a spheroidal earth?

  • ||

    gimme. banana. me. toilet. sit. good. koko.

  • ||

    Hey can we please get more pointless attacks on libertarians here at reason?

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