VIEW OF LIFE
Eight (or Fewer)
Why do we and most other tetrapods have five digits on each climb?
by Stephen Jay Gould
Owen, England's greatest vertebrate anatomist during Darwin's generation,
developed the concept of an archetype to explicate the evident similarities
that join us with frogs, flamingoes, and fishes. (An archetype is an abstract
model constructed to generate the entire range of vertebrate design by
simple transformation of the all-inclusive prototype.) Owen was so pleased
with his conception that he even drew a picture of his archetype, engraved
it upon a seal for his personal emblem, and in 1852, wrote a letter to
his sister Maria, trying to explain this arcane concept in layperson's
represents the archetype, or primal pattern--what Plato would have
called the "divine idea" on which the osseous frame of all vertebrate
animals--i.e., all animals that have bones--has been constructed.
The motto is "the one in the manifold," expressive of the unity
of plan which may be traced through all the modifications of the pattern,
by which it is adapted to the very habits and modes of life of fishes,
reptiles, birds, beasts, and human kind.
took a much more worldly view of the concept, substituting a flesh and
blood ancestor for a Platonic abstraction from the realm of ideas. Vertebrates
had a unified architecture, Darwin argued, because they all evolved from
a common ancestor. The similar shapes and positions ancestor. The similar
shapes and positions of bones record the historical happenstance of ancestral
form, retained by inheritance in all later species of the lineage, not
the abstract perfection of an ideal shape in God's realm of ideas. Darwin
burst Owen's bubble with a marginal note in his personal copy of Owen's
major work, On the Nature of Limbs. Darwin wrote: "I look
at Owen's archetype as more than idea, as a real representation as far
as the most consummate skill and loftiest generalization can represent
the parent form of the Vertebrata."
we construe the concept of an organizing principle of design for major
branches of the evolutionary tree--and Darwin's version gets the modern
nod over Owen's--the idea remains central to biology. Consider the
subset of terrestrial vertebrates, a group technically called Tetrapoda,
or four legged (and including amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals
in conventional classifications). Some fly, some swim, and others slither.
In external appearance and functional role, a whale and a hummingbird
seem sufficiently disparate to warrant ultimate separation. Yet we unite
them by skeletal characters common to all tetrapods, features that set
our modern concept of an archetype. Above all, the archetypal tetrapod
has four limbs, each with five digits--the so-called pentadactyl (five-fingered)
archetypal concept does not require that each actual vertebrate display
all canonical features, but only that uniqueness be recognized as extreme
transformation of the primal form. Thus, a whale may retain but the tiniest
vestige of a femur, only a few millimeters in length and entirely invisible
on its streamlined exterior, to remind us of the ancestral hind limbs.
And although a hummingbird grows only three toes on its feet, a study
of embryological development marks them as digits two, three, and four
of the full ancestral complement. The canonical elements are starting
points and generating patterns, not universal presences.
In the tetrapod archetype, no feature has been more generally accepted
than the pentadactyl limb, putative source of so many deep and transient
human activities, from piano playing to touch typing, duck shooting, celebratory
"high fives," and decimal counting (twice through the sequence
of "this little piggy ... ". Yet this essay will challenge the
usual view of such a canonical number, while not denying its sway in our
A reconstruction of Ichthyostega shows the early tetrapod with five
digits on each limb.
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