Paleoanthropologist says handshakes are not learned cultural behavior, but part of our DNA

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ANTHROPOLOGY

THE HANDSHAKE

by Ella Al-Shamahi (Profile £ 10.99, 176pp)

David Attenborough once found himself in a ‘potentially hairy’ situation in New Guinea when a remote tribe attacked him with spears. Ever Sir, Attenborough calmly reached out and said ‘Good afternoon’. The tribesmen pumped his hand up and down.

Granted, this was in 1957, but still, says paleoanthropologist Ella Al-Shamahi, the author of this amusing handshake biography, the tribe showed more social prowess than some of its north London neighbors.

Remember when we used to shake hands too? Thanks to Covid-19, it seems like an almost strange concept, and some, including Anthony Fauci, medical adviser to the US president, have argued that it should be a thing of the past.

So are we witnessing the death of the handshake? No, says Al-Shamahi, who argues that shaking hands is not a learned cultural behavior, but part of our DNA. She comes to this conclusion by examining our closest relative: the chimpanzee. Like humans, chimpanzees shake hands, or more specifically fingers, in a series of scenarios, including after a fight to say, “Let’s make it up to you.”

Thanks to Covid-19, shaking someone's hand seems like an almost alien concept, but Ella Al-Shamahi says we don't see the death of the handshake (file photo)

Thanks to Covid-19, shaking someone’s hand seems like an almost alien concept, but Ella Al-Shamahi says we don’t see the death of the handshake (file photo)

If both chimpanzees and humans use the handshake, Al-Shamahi argues, it is likely that the gesture began before the species fell apart, as many as seven million years ago. Then why are there some places like Japan and Thailand where handshakes are not an integral part of the culture?

She attributes this to “ancient epidemic events” where touch became and remained taboo. But this, in turn, begs the question, why won’t the same thing happen after Covid-19?

Unlikely, says Al-Shamahi – unless we experience a century of pandemics, fortunately for which she sees little evidence.

After all, the handshake has survived epidemics before: In 1918, as a result of the spread of the Spanish flu, it became illegal to shake hands in Prescott, Arizona, but when the outbreak was over, it quickly resumed.

“Immediate fear of death or serious illness alone is enough to suppress our need to shake hands,” she concludes.

If both chimpanzees and humans use the handshake, Al-Shamahi argues, it is likely that the gesture began before the species fell apart, as many as seven million years ago.

If both chimpanzees and humans use the handshake, Al-Shamahi argues, it is likely that the gesture began before the species fell apart, as many as seven million years ago.

If both chimpanzees and humans use the handshake, Al-Shamahi argues, it is likely that the gesture began before the species fell apart, as many as seven million years ago.

The power of the handshake lies in its versatility. It is suitable for everything from social events to sports to politics. Former US President Theodore Roosevelt holds the Guinness World Record for the most handshakes by a head of state – 8,513 in one day – while Lyndon B. Johnson shook so many hands that his were often black and blue.

But it was the 25th President of the US, William McKinley, who suffered the most from the handshake, because in 1901 he was murdered by Leon Czolgosz when he reached out.

THE HANDSHAKE by Ella Al-Shamahi (Profile £ 10.99, 176pp)

THE HANDSHAKE by Ella Al-Shamahi (Profile £ 10.99, 176pp)

THE HANDSHAKE by Ella Al-Shamahi (Profile £ 10.99, 176pp)

In general, however, handshakes signify greeting, consent and, in the case of Paul Hollywood in The Great British Bake Off, approval. They can even change the attitude of the world, as Princess Diana did in 1987 by shaking hands with an AIDS patient.

Al-Shamahi claims that there is no “room for anything but positivity in the handshake.” William McKinley may disagree. But for her, the handshake is primarily a means of connecting.

The movement of the skin releases oxytocin, a socially binding hormone that induces ‘confidence and protective’ instincts, but is also linked to increased distrust among outsiders. In essence, it helps us to get the measure of someone. Our fingers and palms also have a large number of touch receptors, which is why elbow or fist bumps cannot be compared.

Al-Shamahi knows from personal experience the impact of not shaking hands, as she lived the first 26 years of her life (most in Birmingham) under strict Muslim law that generally prohibits physical contact between men and women.

She used different duck and dive tactics to avoid the ever-present shock, including the empathetic hand on the heart, wearing gloves, and even avoiding it completely.

She describes these efforts as “often hit and miss – well, more hit and miss.”

But as she distanced herself from her religion, for reasons not covered in this book, Al-Shamahi began to shake hands and realized “the importance of physical contact for human connection.”

She makes a compelling argument that in the not-so-distant future we will again be gripping the clammy, germ-legs of near-strangers. I can not wait.