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A series offering a handful of cultural and medical insights.

Tuesdays 18 March to 15 April 2003 9.30-9.45am

Claudia Hammond examines our fingers - five often overlooked clues to our genetic inheritance, our cultural provenance and our psychological state.

Beach Sculpture, Punta del Este, Uruguay
Beach Sculpture, Punta del Este, Uruguay.

When we’re thrown out of the warm darkness of the womb into the light of a hostile world, our hands form a fist, with the thumb hidden behind clenched fingers. Gradually the hand loosens and opens, revealing more than we may imagine. Presenter Claudia Hammond takes a digit per programme - examining its function and probing cutting edge research into its significance - and delivers a handful of cultural resonance and salient science.

Programme 1 - The Thumb. Evolution has left humans and other primates with long, flexible fingers and opposable thumbs (the thumb can be placed opposite any of the other fingers) which enable us to grasp objects. Without the thumb we could not have made tools, or developed the society we have. But now, in the age of texting and Gameboys, its mobility among the younger generation has been proved to have increased exponentially! And Claudia reveals that the film-makers got it wrong - the thumbs up shown in Gladiator would actually have got Russell Crowe killed, not saved his life!

Listen again to Programme 1 Listen again to Programme 1

Programme 2 - Pointing with The Forefinger is a means of communication we use from infancy; it’s used as a diagnostic test for autism - autistic children rarely point. So why, if kidnapped and held to ransom, would a hand surgeon elect to have the forefinger cut off before any other?

Listen again to Programme 2 Listen again to Programme 2

Programme 3 - The Middle Finger is the hidden ingredient that puts the spin into spin-bowling. And it's the means of conveying what's probably the most obscene gesture of all. Claudia also looks at the information fingers can supply - whether from their prints, or the clues your nails divulge as to the state of your liver and heart

Listen again to Programme 3 Listen again to Programme 3

Programme 4 - The Ring Finger - the weakest link? It's important on your wedding day, but it lacks the independent movement of the other digits. Yet research in Liverpool reveals that its length, comparative to that of your index finger, can provide vital information about your fertility and your athletic ability, the likelihood of heart disease and breast cancer, as well as verbal fluency, visuo-spatial ability, and the probability of autism and dyslexia. Finger Prints gives a whole new meaning to ‘reading hands’.

Listen again to Programme 4 Listen again to Programme 4

Programme 5 - The Little Finger - Whether you crook it or not gives the game away in the tea-drinking stakes. But without five fingers our counting systems would have developed very differently. And pianists would be in trouble when it comes to spanning the notes.

Listen again to Programme 5 Listen again to Programme 5
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