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Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/12/2009 1:49 PM

This is sort of a takeoff of Bricktop's great question on the Matthew Crawford book about trades.

I've been reading Neil Shubin's book Your Inner Fish, which describes the discoveries of the fossils showing the transition from fish to not fish roughly 375 million years ago. Shubin is an evolutionary biologist and anatomist at the University of Chicago and is Provost at the Field Museum.

Often, we hear that forebrain development distinguished the point at which primates became human. Other scientists point to upright gait, and some to tool use. Shubin, who tends to look at anatomy, makes a good argument that the thing which most makes us human is our use of hands. He shows the fossil record for the development of hands and lays out a good case for the uniqueness of that structure in humans (other animals come close, but no cigar).

If this is true, then ought we not to consider the man who can build furniture with his hands to be superior, in terms of being human, to the man who can only calculate economic theory? Have we gotten this backwards?

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#1

Re: Are manual skills more human?

06/12/2009 4:24 PM

The way TVP45 phrased the question, comparing the furniture craftsman to the economist, sort of biases the answer, because a good furniture craftsman is almost always going to be better at what he does than an economist is at economics, because economics is complex. In fact, a really smart economist would paraphrase Socrates to the effect that "a wise economist is one who knows how little he can predict."

That being said, a better comparison keeps the compared trades in the same arena; say a carpenter and an architect. There are going to be many more competent carpenters than architects, because good architecture requires most of the knowledge of carpentry, but then in addition the ability to think in abstractions, then convert the abstraction into something the average carpenter can build.

Or an engineer, and his technician. The engineer has to know enough about what the technician can do to design something the technician can build. But the technician doesn't need to understand the details of, say, the circuit he is building, only the "gozintas" and "gosoutofs", and how to check for proper operation of the finished device. All my old techs were way better solderers than I ever could be - they were certified to build equipment that could fly on aircraft. In fact, all the things they did, they did better than I could. But in a pinch, I could have built the device they built for me: not as fast, certainly not as well, and certainly not airworthy, but a working prototype that would prove the concept, yes.

I'm not arguing the fact that the interaction of hands and brain isn't an important part of what makes us human; it seems a valid point. I'm just saying that using your hands to build or repair things is not the apex of human achievement.

Maybe a better example yet is the automotive technician vs. the automotive designer. The one can repair what already exists, but the other creates for the other to repair.

And while the furniture craftsman is indeed "creating," he creates at a fairly simple conceptual level, as opposed to, say, the engineer who designs a high quality and manufacturable engine.

A friend from college days is a solid-state memory designer, and he is fond of saying that until you have designed something to be sold in the millions, you haven't designed squat. Only he used a different word. He knows that I tend to build one of a kind test aids, or special test equipment, without all the constraints required by making a profit while mass-marketing a product. Clearly he has to have a good understanding of all aspects of the manufacturing process in order to produce a successful design.

My conclusion is that while the hand-brain connection is central to being human, the ability to extrapolate and conceptualize something useful which does not yet exist from what does is the highest human achievement, whether that be in the field of engineering, art, medicine, what have you.

Another example is one of the greatest inventions in human history - powered flight. It wasn't just the Wright Brothers who understood the principles of aerofoils and how to control flight - the Lillienthal brothers were at it right along with them. And Samuel Langley with a lot of resources behind him built a powered aircraft, but it didn't work, at least in part because the engine power/weight ratio wasn't high enough.

The Wright Brothers understood that they needed more horsepower per pound from a power source than was available at the time, and designed their own internal combustion engine that did what needed to be done. That is one of the hallmarks of true achievement: to see a goal, and drive towards it solving all problems that come your way. And when the problems that surface are insoluble at the present state-of-the-art, and the inventor has to advance the state-of-the-art to achieve his goal, then you have true human greatness.

Now that was an example from the technical world, and TVP45 could well argue that the Wright Brothers were craftsmen, but if all they were was craftsman, they would have continued building fine bicycles in Dayton and none of us would have ever heard of them. What they were was hands-on engineers.

Finally, an example from science. We all know the story of Sir Isaac Newton and the apple, but in order to prove that the Earth attracted the apple the same as it attracts the Moon, Newton had to prove that the Earth attracts objects at its surface the same as if all the Earth's mass was concentrated at its center. In order to do that, Newton had to invent the calculus. So again there is a goal, and no tools developed to attain that goal, so the scientist has to invent his own tools to take him where he wants to go.

Newton's theory of gravitation is one of the greatest of human achievements, and there were no hands involved.

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#2

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/12/2009 7:09 PM

I think using our hands may have been something that put us on the path, but surely abstract thought and caring for others has more to do with our humanity now.

I also doubt that any animals ask " Why are we here? " .

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#3

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/12/2009 7:36 PM

Don't read my question as putting down intellectuals. Note I said, "...who can only calculate...". And, I'm not asking about great technological tasks; I'm asking really about knowing what it means to be human. If, for example, you could choose only one friend, and that based on occupation, would you choose a stone mason or a professor of ethics? Which of the two would you trust (simply on a first impression) with the nuclear football?

If you meet a fellow who starts off by listing the books he's written and you meet another fellow who starts off by showing a picture of his cat riding on the tractor while wearing sunglasses, who would you like to visit with again? Think about the qualities that make us human, not the ones that make us important.

And, finally, notice I said, "If this is true..." What's true for me may not be true for you. That's cool.

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#4

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/13/2009 2:13 AM

I believe that you will find a sequence from craftsman to engineer. If a craftsman, as an apprentice, is allowed to make his own decisions, regarding certain DESIGN applications, after so many years of REAL work, in the field, HE will find what works and what doesn't work. As a carpenter of many years, I have often had to "school" engineers and architechs with the "realities" of what can work and what cannot work, on certain jobs.---The engineer tells me to put in a certain calced-out beam, in order to obtain a certain structural value, but I have to tell him that there are four obstacles in the way of that beam , and it needs to be put in different way--He does his job--calcing out values, but has never worked in the field, and had no practical experience. The best ones always come to us, with hats and calcs in hand, and we pow-wow about how to get it done--They often walk away with a greater understanding of the hand that makes it all happen. C-MAC

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#5
In reply to #2

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/13/2009 4:33 AM

Hold that thought as you sit where in a chair how is that deduction fair?

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#6

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/13/2009 7:44 AM

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

-Robert A. Heinlein

That's my take on it as well. There is a story that during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, Roebling was looking for a new foreman. He went around the work site, asking the workers what they were doing. He got answers like "cutting stone" or "sawing wood" or "threading pipe" etc. Finally he asked one worker who was up to his knees in mud digging a ditch what he was doing. The ditch-digger stopped, looked out across the river and answered, "I'm building a bridge."

The development of opposable thumbs is great, but an octopus or a raccoon could probably manage the manual dexterity and basic smarts to do lots of simple tasks very well. It's the mind that puts those simple tasks together that is what distinguishes humans from animals, and each other. A raccoon could be an expert thief, but he couldn't envision a criminal enterprise like the Mob. An octopus could open any jar or bottle, but he couldn't design a new one.

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#7
In reply to #1

Re: Are manual skills more human?

06/13/2009 10:54 AM

"Another example is one of the greatest inventions in human history - powered flight. It wasn't just the Wright Brothers who understood the principles of aerofoils and how to control flight - the Lillienthal brothers were at it right along with them. And Samuel Langley with a lot of resources behind him built a powered aircraft, but it didn't work, at least in part because the engine power/weight ratio wasn't high enough."

I'm sorry, but I cannot let this stand unchallenged. For a start, while Otto Lilienthal [note spelling] DID have a brother (Gustav), I've seen nothing to say that Gustav was part of the effort, nor ever made a flight. And Otto died in 1896, several years before the Wrights built their first glider (not, "right along with"). Yes, they DID know of him, and were quite open in saying so and praising his pioneering work, but they were forced to work out lift/drag and other aspects of airfoils themselves after his tables proved wrong (based on someone else's errors). His "control" was by weight shift, though he had apparently planned to build a glider with movable surfaces. The Wright's control by deforming or moving surfaces made controlled flight of anything larger than a hang glider possible.

Langley's engine had 52 horsepower out of 200 pounds of weight. The Wright Brothers had a 100 pound engine developing about 12 hp - roughly half the power-to-weight ratio. Langley actually had a SUPERIOR engine (which Balzer built and then Manley redesigned for him), with the best power-to-weight in the world at that time - see Balzer Engine. His Aerodrome, though, lacked real control - he'd gone the "stable at any cost" route, which was fine for the models he'd built and flown long distances; when someone built a supposed "replica" to prove that it could have flown, they added quite a number of features, including directional control. Langley's design had a Penaud tail for yaw & pitch, but no roll control at all, and was intended for flight only in stable air conditions.

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#8
In reply to #7

Re: Are manual skills more human?

06/13/2009 12:15 PM

Well, I have to admit that certainly sounds authoritative, but is quite different than what I learned. But I have to admit I learned this when I was a child, not as an engineer.

So I'll assume I was wrong on the technical aspects, at least for the sake of making a further point.

One of the books I read about the Wright Brothers (again as a child) said that they learned an important lesson from their mother about planning a project. They would just go off and start to build something, and it wouldn't work out, and she taught them to plan in advance and draw the thing before they built it. "If you draw it right, you will build it right." Something close to that.

That again goes to the conceptualizing aspect, which I and others have repeatedly mentioned in this thread.

The hand-brain connection was the start, but that doesn't mean working with your hands alone is the apex of humanness. Extrapolating from what you know and have experienced to that which you must learn and create is the full measure of humanity.

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#9
In reply to #7

Re: Are manual skills more human?

06/13/2009 12:34 PM

In addition to control surfaces, the other problem Langley seems to have had was a runway.

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#10
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Re: Are manual skills more human?

06/13/2009 2:23 PM

That being said, a better comparison keeps the compared trades in the same arena; say a carpenter and an architect. There are going to be many more competent carpenters than architects, because good architecture requires most of the knowledge of carpentry, but then in addition the ability to think in abstractions, then convert the abstraction into something the average carpenter can build.

Hmm...I suppose though accurately categorized architecture is an elite level within the carpentry trade.

The automotive technician vs. the automotive designer

maybe a better example yet is the floor sweeper vs. the master mechanic.

Orville Wright dropped out of high school after his junior year to start a printing business in 1889, having designed and built his own printing press with Wilbur's help.

It wasn't just the Wright Brothers whom were hands-on engineers operating a bicycle shop and manufacturing their own brand. The year 1896 in August, Lilienthal was killed in the plunge of his glider. May 1899 Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution requesting information and publications about aeronautics.

We all know the story of Sir Isaac Newton, a famous contributor to the development of calculus.

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#11

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/13/2009 5:53 PM

Although no one has all the answers, someone who has had experience in hands-on activities and later on decides to DESIGN has the upper edge. Why? Because the way he will focus his mind to complete the task, cosidering obstacles that in the physical world will be a problem. He won´t have the answer to every question asked or ask all the questions needed, but when he plans his design he knows some of the problems he shall face.

Personally, I prefer a teacher who has been in the trenches and can tell me about human behavior, structural problems, applied physics and so on, then a PhD with 30 years experience and needing a plumber to fix a leaky faucet.

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#12

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/13/2009 7:45 PM

"Any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function… is grossly misleading and sterile.", Frank R. Wilson in The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture, Pantheon Books, 1998.

This gets even murlier when we realize that functional MRI research by folks like Marcel Just has cast grave doubts as to whether there is any such thing as a mind separate from the body. Talking about a mind-body connection may be as pointless as talking about a pancreas-body connection.

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#13
In reply to #11

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/13/2009 7:49 PM

Great points! A friend of my wife is a student counselor for a very highly rated Technical University, in the Los Angeles area. A student recently explained to her that the water heater had gone out in the apartment he was renting. Very familiar with on-line tech support, the student quickly gathered the tools and information needed, and bought a new water heater. Two hours later, he came into the counselor's office, tail between his legs. "What's the matter?", she asked. He explained that he had everything he needed, followed the instructions to a "T" , and yet had to call a plumber to finish the job. "What did he do, that you didn't do?" , she asked. " He used a wrench to get a fitting off---I had the same wrench and it wouldn't work", he explained. "Why not" , she asked. "He turned it really hard!" True story, and the amazing thing is, this kid will probably be figuring out the trajectory for our next space launch to Mars. Estimation of effort is not in my blueprints. C-MAC

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#14

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/15/2009 2:27 PM

Interesting take....although I think those in Washington may not agree with you.

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#15
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Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/15/2009 2:49 PM

"Interesting take...." Can you tell us which of the 14 previous posts & comments you mean to address?

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#16

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/16/2009 11:11 AM

Most great discoveries/inventions were the result of experimentation on a seed of an idea. The Wright brothers may have had a notion of how flight would be possible, but it was the hands-on approach that ultimately made flight possible. Fast forward to the present and nothing has really changed. Engineers are taking a known principal and through the application of hands-on know how, are able to come up with a new product. A new product rarely ever works the first time it is created. It always takes much tweaking and modification to finalize the product.

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#17

Re: Are Manual Skills More Human?

06/18/2009 7:37 AM

I like to see it with 1 example. Learning about fotography, we can asure begin with a manual camera which is take a long..long time to produce a good professional pic (with huge effort behind). Easier to take a digi cam with a guidance path like "setting and email account with a microsoft outlook programm."

The logic bacame wrong, as we think a digi cam is not human, cause actually the technoscientists developed it for making the life easier and fun but they've contributed huge of works, dedication, commit and sacrifice which are human aspects.

The point is: if your camera need some services (cause it doesn't work as proper), would you like to give it up to a service centre which totally 100 bugs cost or yoou u'll prefer find the defect by yourselves (cause you r a proof fotographer, know ab. ur own "wappen") at the end you just need to buy exactly the defect spare part.It's more cheaper. Which do u prefer?

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