20 May 2020   Leave a comment

The Washington Post has an interesting story on whether the handshake will survive the COVID-29 pandemic. The article suggests that the handshake will survive, a conclusion with which I agree. But aside from a cursory reference to the emergence of the handshake to medieval Europe when knights would extend their hands to show that they were unarmed, the article does not investigate why the handshake is so pervasive.

The handshake is indeed a way of discovering whether a stranger is unarmed, but it extends further back from medieval Europe. Consider the almost universal way we greet strangers from afar: the wave. Extending an upright arm with an open palm is a way to prove to others that we are indeed unarmed. The Romans, instead of clasping hands, clasped forearms because togas could hide a knife buried surreptitiously in the folds of the toga. Soldiers are required to salute a superior officer with an open palm salute in order to prove that they were not carrying a weapon in their hand, a general concern in a population that is almost always armed.

Moreover, the ability of humans to clench their fists tightly is different from primates. Primates retain their ability to use their hands in particular ways as an aid to locomotion, usually in trees, but those uses preclude the ability to make a clenched fist. Humans, on the other hand, have evolved the ability to clench their fists tightly, essentially giving them the ability to use their fist as a club. That ability was necessary in order to use hands as a weapon, an attribute unique among all primates.

Humans developed cultural norms in order to survive in hostile environments, and to assure survival when meeting strangers. The handshake and the wave suggest that humans had deep fears of aggressive behaviors. Unfortunately.

Posted May 20, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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