by Katie the Lowly Intern
You might recall this gentle soul who got her face gnawed off by a chimp in February. I won’t even begin to sift through the big ball of bizarre that story is, but it does lead to an interesting discussion concerning exactly where apes get enough strength to go around mauling humans. Biologists agree that a great ape’s muscle structure is better, faster, stronger than our measly muscles. However, Alan Walker, a professor of Biology at Penn State just published an article in Current Anthropology that looks at another possible contributing factor.
He makes the argument that not only are great apes at a structural advantage, but perhaps their neurological hardwiring has something to do with their disproportionate super strength (4x that of humans*). If you buy into evolution, then his hypothesis seems to make some sense.
We, as humans, generally have very fine-tuned motor skills that make it easier for us to do human stuff like tie shoe laces, dial phone numbers, and lightly caress a stranger’s soft hair without being detected. But all a monkey does is jump around and fling poop. In other words, we have the ability to control fewer muscle fibers as we complete complex tasks, while apes control more muscle fibers at one time for simpler tasks. Walker backs up some of his claims by referencing a primatologist, Ann MacLarnon (avatar name: chimpANN_Z). She found that chimps have a lot less grey matter in their spinal chords than humans. And wouldn’t you know, spinal cord grey matter houses tons of motor nuerons. Which means chimps have poorer fine motor skills, but more muscle fibers working together to perform the same action. Which means their muscle movements are less refined, but more powerful. Which means we win in needle threading contests, but not in limb rending.
*I should say most humans. Here is a photo taken of me at the beach last summer opening a jar of jam for a helpless chimp.