The Original Jocks

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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.

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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.

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How... how did you know about the hair stroking?! I was so careful!

Ahem. Understand that my knowledge of neurology, physiology, and neurophysiology was never great and is out of date. That out of the way, is it possible that there's a switch in us that causes a reversion to something like this ape model of muscle control, as a means of explaining feats of strength under stress? Sure, most of it is the adrenal glands whispering sweet nothings to you, telling you "No, of course that tearing crackle noise wasn't your back. It's probably just free bib night at the Kenny Roger's Roasters.", but it was a thought that just happened to strike me.

Actually... yeah. A quote from Mr. Walker:
"Add to this the effect of severe electric shock, where people are often thrown violently by their own extreme muscle contraction, and it is clear that we do not contract all our muscle fibers at once... So there might be a degree of cerebral inhibition in people that prevents them from damaging their muscular system that is not present, or not present to the same degree, in great apes."

smart, sexy and with mild stalking habits!!!! marry me katie x

You ran into a chimpanzee with a tail at the beach, and the jar of jam was the only thing that caught your attention? Cryptozoology fail.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 03 Apr 2009 #permalink

Neato. Thanks for sharing!

No, of course that tearing crackle noise wasn't your back. It's probably just free bib night at the Kenny Roger's Roasters.", but it was a thought that just happened to strike me.

Interesting that you have a chimp in a gi. It seems likely to me that some of the more esoteric martial arts have training methods for accessing that strength (often called "hysterical strength"). It may be that special cerebral processes are required to get all the nerves to fire together.

The might be a degree of cerebral inhibition in people that prevents them from damaging their muscular system that is not present. oky?

You ran into a chimpanzee with a tail at the beach, and the jar of jam was the only thing that caught your attention? Cryptozoology fail.

where people are often thrown violently by their own extreme muscle contraction, and it is clear that we do not contract all our muscle fibers at once