Iain Murray : It’s hard to put your finger on, but something’s amiss

A survey of fingers offers the enticing prospect of spotting potential sports stars from the womb. Iain Murray wonders if some things are best left as mysteries.

Roll on the recession: Number 124. An economic downturn might prompt Doctors Roger Taylor and John Manning of the University of Liverpool to seek gainful employment elsewhere, perhaps as buskers or mime artists. In the meantime, while the economy continues to give the illusion of boom, they can pursue their chosen vocation of measuring footballers’ fingers.

This column has, in the past, touched upon the work of Professor Stephen Gray of Nottingham Trent University who has made it his life’s work to measure female buttocks. To date he has cast his callipers across no fewer than 8,000 specimens and, with a sad shake of his head, pronounced them “broader and saggier than they have ever been”.

Ah well, few men would begrudge the professor his work, even though it has left him musing upon a melancholy decline.

But while it is one thing to measure ladies’ bottoms it is quite another to measure footballers’ digits. While Prof. Gray may bend to his task with the eager vim of one who might yet discover the perfect specimen, it is difficult to imagine Doctors Manning and Taylor approaching their mission with anything other than grim resolve.

That might explain the gap between their diligence and that of Gray. While he has examined thousands, they have managed but 304 – or 836 if you include the non-footballers in their sample.

But, I hear you cry, (for no one goes into marketing without the lively sense of curiosity so lamentably absent in many of our fellow citizens) what is the point of measuring footballers’ fingers?

Manning explains: “There is evidence that our fingers tell us how much of the ‘male hormone’ testosterone we have been exposed to before birth.

“The important fingers here are the ring and index finger, that is the fingers adjacent to little finger and thumb.”

I think it is so important to define terms, don’t you? Without Manning’s guidance there may have been some who, when asked to which finger is the ring finger adjacent, might have replied: “The one next to it.” It’s that kind of sloppy thinking that undermines research.

At any rate, earlier studies in the US suggest that men with long ring fingers compared with their index fingers (neither of which incidentally is adjacent to the other) are “highly masculinised” before birth. In women long ring fingers are linked to lesbian tendencies.

Early exposure to testosterone is important in males for the formation of the heart and in determining ability in spatial judgement. It clearly occurred to the two doctors that football requires both a formed heart and the ability to judge distances, particularly between nightclubs. Ergo, footballers should have long ring fingers. And what better way to find out than to measure them?

At Liverpool University the thought is father to the deed, so in marched 304 footballers and ex-footballers from the Premier League to division three of the Football League, and a “control group” of 532 non-footballers. It would be nice to think that the non-footballers were marked by tendency to bump into things and sit down and have a cup of tea, but, if that was the case, we are not told.

No doubt to the satisfaction of the doctors, the footballers did indeed have longer ring fingers than other mortals. What is more, the higher the division in which they played, the longer were their fingers. And international players had the longest fingers of all.

To postulate a theory and see it proven in the crucible of empiricism must be enormously gratifying, and, impractical though the findings may be, there is a case to be made for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. Even though it may profit us not to know how the bumblebee flies or where the arachnid nests, the addition to the sum total of human learning is sufficient.

And yet we live in an intensely functional and impatient age. People are bound to question the purpose of knowing that footballers have longer fingers than, say, accident-prone crane drivers, ie: those whose stubby ring digits render them spatially challenged and liable to drop the load in the sea.

Manning is aware of this problem and has an answer prepared. “Finger length,” he says, “could help identify young sportsmen of great promise long before they reach the age when they can compete at national and international level.”

That may not be as good as it sounds. Picture a happily pregnant woman stretched on the examination couch. The nurse runs a scanner over the distended abdomen. “What is it?,” asks the mother-to-be, suppressing a frisson of anticipation. “A boy or a girl?”

“It’s a footballer.”

That is not a reply that everyone would welcome. Nor, even in this enlightened age, would every expectant mother thrill to the news: “It’s a lesbian.”

There are things we are better off learning in the fullness of time rather than being sprung on us when we are expecting to hear something quite different.

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