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I've written an essay in the new issue of National Geographic about the history of hands. Hands help to make us uniquely human, and yet hands can be found on gibbons, frogs, elephants, and all manner of other beasts. I consider how the diversity of hands illuminates the workings of evolution: tinkering with old biology to produce new forms.
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I just finished that read +Carl Zimmer , well written. Thank you!
There is a book that did a good job of delving into the subject - "Your inner fish"
A journey into the 3.5 billion year history of the Human body, by Neil Shubin.

Your opening paragraph was very eloquint. -"without hands, all of the grand ideas we concoct would come to nothing but a very long to-do-list."
It seems incredible, I never stopped to think about the importance and utility of the hands are not obvious. Congratulations!
I heard once that the embryogenesis of hand and penis had common key gene(s) : a proof that the hand evolved for masturbation ?
Intelligent or not, all depends on if a creature has a flexible and precise moving hand, so, for now, watching those ugly ET invading Earth, that don't hv the hand like ours, reminds me I'm watching a movie.
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