October 6, 2012

Thumbs Up For Thumbs!

Okay, let’s just get this part out of the way: in this piece, I touch on Honey Boo Boo. The person, the show, the whole fam damily. We’ve all had at least a peek of this familial circus, and apparently America is in the throes of a sweaty love/hate relationship with the entire family. We indulge in a bit of classism as their perceived backwardness makes us feel better about our own inadequacies/we pat ourselves on the back for being above criticizing them/we note that their acceptance - of themselves and others - is something we could all learn from. The eternal waves loop and lap at the cosmic shore again and again. Whatever.

Recently, snarky pop culture writers have been referring to the matriarch of the Honey Boo Boo family, June Shannon, as a “human thumb,” which is most certainly meant to refer to her somewhat stalactite-like cascading series of chins, and most certainly meant to be an insult.

At the height of country music juggernaut Garth Brooks’ fame, critic Ken Tucker said Brooks “has a face like a thumb with a hat on it.” This was perhaps a criticism of the aggressively bland nature of Brooks' brand of entertainment as much as his looks, but still. A thumb insult.

(And let’s not even talk about the internet’s first famous human thumb, this poor guy at a party who earned digital infamy for this unfortunate party shot.)

But before we bulletpoint ourselves too far away from my thesis: why has calling someone a thumb become the go-to insult? Is "thumb" the new "fat?"
What’s so terrible about thumbs? Not a thing! You owe everything you love about life to thumbs, and I’m here to make their case.

Thumbs, as it happens, are quite marvelous and advantageous, biomechanically. Opposable thumbs enable precision grip, therefore sophisticated tool use. Thumbs are how Homo erectus struck flint against steel and sparked fire.
Thumbs are the reason we can eat corn on the cob with dignity, using the smooth spinning motions of our deft, be-thumbed meat grabbers. Ever seen a New World monkey try to eat corn on the cob? Nothing but flying splats of melting butter, and yowling, hungry despair. Take my word for it, marmosets and lemurs are no threat to a pudding can or a gym lock.

Opposable thumbs are what led our primal ancestors to go from wildly swinging branches at each other to more accurately assaulting each other with refined clubs. Anthropologists speculate that when our distant forebears moved from quadrapedal to bipedal locomotion, and our hands were suddenly free to carry things, we developed the psychological need for devices that would eventually be cornerstones of modern material culture,
like car keys, 
cell phones, and Zima bottles. To use the broadest possible and least plausible metaphor, civilization was built on thumbs.

Without thumbs there would be no hitchhiking, no neatly-applied eyeliner, no decent handjobs, no calligraphy, no Siskel and Ebert, no snapping-while-awkward-white-girl-dancing, no wordlessly letting your waiter know that your dinner is a-okay while you churn a hot bite of panini in the evolved gill opening that is your mouth, no Joaquin Phoenix deciding the fate of Russell Crowe with one impetuous turn of his imperial Roman thumb. I don't know about you, but that sounds like a barren, cold, joyless existence to me.

In fact, thumbs are so awesome, it’s a good thing humans are the only species possessing both opposable thumbs and self-awareness. Old World monkeys and great apes have thumbs (though they're considerably less useful than the human model) and if granted self-awareness, they would soon dominate the planet with primate culture and ape-shaped civilizations. How much banana skin couture do you want to see sashaying down the runways every Fashion Week? 
How many poo-flinging splatter painting retrospectives do you want to buy tickets for at the Apenheim Museum of Modern Art? Let’s count our blessings.

Calling someone a "thumb" is calling someone awesome. Thumbs are the reason we can text while driving, ineffectively adjust the spray from the garden hose, and order hotel porn with one hand via television remote control. 

Thumbs are a sign of superior evolution, and keep us in the upper echelon of the taxonomy of life on Earth, which brings up a point: Honey Boo Boo’s mother, June “The Human Thumb” Shannon, recently became the grandmother of Kaitlyn Elizabeth, a baby who has two thumbs on her left hand. Make of that what you will.

-Elizabeth McQuern

1. Montaigne, Michel de. “Of thumbs.
2. Dolphins Evolve Opposable Thumbs: 'Oh, Shit,' Says Humanity (The Onion.)
3. Random “facts” I pulled out of my ass.