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Give Me Five

This article was originally published in Positive Health issue 74 – March 2002

When it comes to digits (fingers and toes), Nature has never been able to count above five. If we except a few genetic mishaps, no animal belonging to the Amniota (reptile, bird or mammal) was ever able to evolve, as a fixed characteristic, more than five digits.

Animals can easily manage with fewer than five. Horses, for example, stand solely on their third digit. But more than five is unheard of.

Even the cute giant panda, which was at one time suspected to be polydactylous (having more than the normal number of fingers or toes), has only five digits. Up to five is OK. More than five and animals would be all fingers and thumbs – this is Nature’s rule of thumb.
Pentadactylism, the condition of having five digits, has always been a topic of interest to biologists and anatomists. You can count on fingers and toes to keep them busy thinking and reflecting! Recently, Chris Hayes, a British researcher, may have discovered the reason why animals don’t evolve more than five digits. By studying polydactylous mice at the Medical Research Council’s Mouse Genome Centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire, he discovered that when the limbs have more than five digits they become distorted into a bow-legged shape which seriously interferes with normal walking or running.

Professor F Wood Jones, an anatomist of renown, was also interested in fingers and toes. He is the one who proved with X-rays that the so-called panda’s sixth digit was in fact only an enlarged wrist bone which passed for a thumb. But enough of ‘panda-dactylism’.

Let’s come back to human anatomy. Wood Jones, a true lover of digits, also coined the term ‘digital formula’, which expresses “…the relative projection of tips of the digits from the extremity of the limb”.[1] Examine your hands and you will see that the tips of your fingers end up at different levels. The third or middle one, for example, is clearly the longest. Now unboot and unsock your feet and have a close look at your toes. Don’t bother counting them but look at the relative projection of their tips. Which one protrudes the most? In the majority of people (well over 80%) the first or big toe is the longest. So, the typical human digital formula is to have the big toe the longest, followed by the second, third, fourth and fifth, i.e. 1>2>3>4>5.[2]

But it is not always the big toe that projects the furthest; in about 6-7% of English people, it is the second toe that projects ahead of the others. In these cases the formula reads as: 2>1>3>4>5. If you are one of the few, you will be pleased to know that, according to some artists and anatomists, such feet are the ideal and were used as a model by the Greek sculptors. Interestingly, it occurs slightly more frequently in women than in men.

I was somewhat shocked to read in a recent newspaper about a woman who hated her second toes so much that she had them surgically removed – to be blunt, so to speak, she had them cut off. The cause of this toe-hate? They were longer than her big toes! She was not too pleased to have inherited feet that supposedly fit into the Greek canon. How true is the saying that we are never satisfied with what we’ve got. True, the ‘ideal’ foot has nothing to do with the relative length of the toes. And, according to some experts on Greek sculpture, the statues displaying feet with elongated second toes were not the original work of the Greek masters but of some later restorers. Still, it’s not a good reason to chop them off.

To cut off toes when they are very painful and when no other solution can be found is understandable, but to do so for cosmetic reason seems unnecessarily drastic. It would be a serious mistake to think that toes are useless structures. Wood Jones, a connoisseur on this subject, says that: “On the whole, perhaps, surgeons have been disposed to value toes too lightly and, even after a lapse of more than half a century, it is worth repeating Ellis’s dictum: ‘Here let it be said that the toes play a far more important part in the ordinary functions of the foot than is generally admitted.'”[3],[4] Unfortunately, cosmetic surgery of the toes is the latest fad in America where women are desperately keen to have feet that look good in sandals. I would rather call it fanatic surgery and would give it the thumbs-down. Besides, I don’t understand the logic. Fashion often requires women to torture and distort their feet most of the year by wearing atrociously pointed and high-heeled shoes. Then, once they have dutifully disfigured them, they subject them to more torture by way of surgical correction just because they want, subito presto, pretty feet for the few weeks or months when they are on display in sandals.

Next time you put your shoes on, don’t forget your pentadactylous condition. You are not a horse with only one toe, but a human with five of them – they need space to wiggle freely. Remember also your digital formula. The shape of the front of your foot is not pointed like those of apes where the middle or third digit projects the most. Pointed shoes are a good design for anthropoid feet but certainly not for the vast majority of humans.

Don’t toe the line, say no to the fashion-mongers and distorters of the human frame.

Notes and References
1. Wood Jones F. Principles of Anatomy as Seen in the Hand. Baillière, Tindall and Cox. London. 1949.
2. The symbol ‘>’ means ‘greater than’.
3. Ellis of Gloucester. 1989.

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