Overnight mutation or lousy science?
March 27, 2002 6:26 AM   Subscribe

Overnight mutation or lousy science? Or maybe an early April Fool's joke. The Gameboy generation's thumbs are as developed and agile as the rest of their digits. "...the younger generation has taken to using thumbs in a completely different way and are instinctively using it where the rest of us use our index fingers is particularly interesting.' " An interesting social phenomenon, certainly, but biology...?
posted by gordian knot (17 comments total)
Lousy science. This is NOT a mutation. Totally inappropriate use of the word. A *mutation* would not result due to post-conception environmental factors... this is a trend concerning an acquired ability. I suggest some reading on Lamarckianism, for those of you who would disagree.
posted by dissent at 6:43 AM on March 27, 2002

I say hoax.

"thumbs are the new fingers."
posted by zpousman at 6:53 AM on March 27, 2002

Neither. Lousy editing.
posted by xiffix at 6:54 AM on March 27, 2002

"The thumb tribe?"

posted by ook at 7:00 AM on March 27, 2002

Yup. Sadie Plant is too smart to say anything about mutations. The author of the story, not Plant, wrote that, and the editor let it through.

It is interesting though, if true, that the use of a particular digit for one set of tasks might jump and result in greater use for other things as well.
posted by mikel at 7:04 AM on March 27, 2002

Mikel, it's not so much a jump as a logical progression. Once those muscles are developed, along with the necessary coordination, it would be natural to use them more. Maybe the thumb has been our neglected digit, and now its use is being encouraged by a new technology. Not so strange, really, when you consider that 90% of our brain capacity is supposedly unused. New technologies seem to be affecting this, though measuring any real change is probably impossible.
posted by gordian knot at 7:11 AM on March 27, 2002

Yeah, I've noticed that kids these days favor their thumb when picking their nose, but people over 25 dig for gold with the pointer finger. Now it all makes sense.
posted by Werd7 at 7:23 AM on March 27, 2002

Fair enough, gordian. I've been trying to think of examples in my (decidedly not under-25) life, and I would agree that I use my thumb for things that I once used my index finger to do, like changing between presets on my car radio or pushing the play (or rewind, whatever) buttons on my VCR.

For those who aren't aware of her work, Sadie Plant is quite well known in the academic "digital theory" world. She's been doing this kind of work for years, and it's usually quite decent (if sometimes beside the point).
posted by mikel at 7:26 AM on March 27, 2002

The 90 percent factoid is perhaps one of the worst urban legends about the human mind.

I suspect this is a case of simple practice in a motor skill. There is a great John Hooker album cover with his fingers twisted into knots. I'm willing to bet that if millions of children were spending their time playing blues guitar, that we would suddenly see a dramatic increase in the ability to twist fingers into knots.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:43 AM on March 27, 2002

Kirk, I know that the 90% thing is a factoid, but I was using it as an analogy.
posted by gordian knot at 8:18 AM on March 27, 2002

"Experts claim it proves technology is causing physical alterations that previously happened over generations. "

Right. And our bodies purposely evolve all sorts of things (in less than one generation!), including powerful thumbs that will aid us in ripping the throats out of gazelles.

Exercise and repetition would result in these changes. As for me, just passed the 25 threshold that's so important (because, obviously, you can't develop anything new after 25), my dad always complained when I used a calculator with my thumbs. No amount of gaming, handheld or otherwise, has reversed my anti-thumb bias.
posted by yerfatma at 8:42 AM on March 27, 2002

we trackball users have a leg (thumb?) up on all you mouse-loving troglodytes...
posted by techgnollogic at 9:05 AM on March 27, 2002

What's being described is not a mutation in the genome, it is a cultural "mutation" in the development of motor skills. That is to say, our bodies are not totally determined by our genetic endowments; the genes allow for certain potentialities, which get developed differently in different circumstances.
posted by Rebis at 10:23 AM on March 27, 2002

Sadie Plant likes a good story. In the elegantly packaged Zeros and Ones (0/1=female/male, get it?), the "cyberfeminist" suggests that a woman invented computing by analogy with weaving (Ada Lovelace working with Babbage, Jacquard looms).

The story here is: we developed technology thanks to our opposable thumbs and now technology is inversing the process by further developing our thumbs. Or something.

Sadie Plant's slightly passé lit-crit-shit "narratives" may be fun, but have little to do with science. Here's an amusing account of the "Research Unit" she founded, but is no longer part of (numerical mysticism? professor of "delirial engineering"? the site is unfortunately off-line). I believe she's not affiliated with any research organization anymore, contrary to what she still suggests to the press.
posted by Turtle at 10:24 AM on March 27, 2002

well, sure, it's biology, not genetics though. people inappropriately use the word mutation all the time, it didn't bother me so much i guess, because people hardly ever use it right anyway. all they're saying is that <25 people use their thumbs more, and maybe in the real study thumbs in that group were shown to have more dexterity, fine motor control etc. (not really spelled out, but in normal press what is?) it's interesting, certainly not a genetic mutation though, but i doubt that's the author's fault, general press is really bad about changing things to words they've heard before, especially if they think the words mean the same thing...
i don't know anything about this author, so, maybe ignore what i'm saying :)
posted by rhyax at 10:33 AM on March 27, 2002

The original Observer article said nothing about mutation. That's been added on by pretty much everyone who's plagiari^W followed up on it since.

The dozy anchor on CNN headline actually emphasised the mutation aspect, which I guess is the sexy bit for those of us with only half a brain.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 11:55 AM on March 27, 2002

Does this mean that if you're good at playing a Gameboy, more women will want you to fuck them?
posted by ArkIlloid at 9:32 PM on March 27, 2002

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