Extensions of the Body

“In order to exploit the environment all organisms adapt their bodies to meet specialized environmental conditions,”

wrote Edward T. Hall [1], the anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher, in his book “The Silent Language” [2], in which he analyzed “the many ways in which people “talk” to one another without the use of words”. He gives a few examples of adaptations:

“the long neck of the giraffe (adapted to high foliage of trees), the teeth of the saber-toothed tiger, toes of the tree sloth, hoof of the horse, and man’s opposable thumb”.

The adaptation of the body is not the end of the story. The author continues:

“Occasionally organisms have developed specialized extensions of their bodies to take the place of what the body itself might do and thereby free the body for other things. Among these ingenious natural developments are the web of the spider, cocoons, nests of birds and fish.” [italics added]

Fieldfare by Andreas Trepte

The man “with his specialized body” is not an exception. (The passage below is cited by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy [3].)

“Today man has developed extensions for practically everything he used to do with his body. The evolution of weapons begins with the teeth and the fist and ends with the atom bomb. Clothes and houses are extensions of man’s biological temperature-control mechanisms. Furniture takes the place of squatting and sitting on the ground. Power tools, glasses, TV, telephones, and books which carry the voice across both time and space are examples of material extensions. Money is a way of extending and storing labor. Our transportation networks now do what we used to do with our feet and backs. In fact, all man-made material things can be treated as extensions of what man once did with his body or some specialized part of his body.”

Farmer in rocking-chair reading The Progressive Farmer. “Farmer reading his farm paper” By George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931

This can be summarized in the table:

Function Body Body Extensions
Weapons teeth, fist atom bomb
Temperature control biological mechanisms clothes, houses
Rest, recreation, relaxation squatting, sitting on the ground furniture
Communication voice TV, telephones, books
Transportation feet and backs transportation networks

What I learned from this list is that one specialized extension of the human body stands out against the other developments. It is neither shameful nor illegal to squat or sit on the ground, to carry something on your back or to use your voice without touching the phone. But it is extremely undesirable to control your body temperature without clothes on even at comfortable ambient temperatures. It seems ridiculous, especially when one takes into account that the purpose of developing specialized extensions of the body is to free the body.

According to Edward T. Hall, “culture controls behavior in deep and persisting ways, many of which are outside of awareness and therefore beyond conscious control of the individual”. The rich experience taught anthropologists one thing, namely that

“culture is more than mere custom that can be shed or changed like a suit of clothes.”

References
[1] Edward T. Hall – Wikipedia
[2] Edward T. Hall. The Silent Language (Anchor Books, 1973)
[3] The Gutenberg Galaxy – Wikipedia

2 comments
  1. Rick said:

    ” the purpose of developing specialized extensions of the body is to free the body.” In many ways the technologies we’ve developed as extensions of the body have not really freed us. Often, we become dependent on those technologies in ways that have compromised the body’s original functions.

    • I think you are absolutely right. The word ‘purpose’ shouldn’t be used here.

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