Fingering It Out

If you’ve ever tried to be an athlete but just couldn’t make the cut or an artist but your brush seemed to have a mind of its own, you might try looking to your fingers for some answers.

Take a person with olive skin, dark hair and brown eyes. These traits, among others, are outward indicators of that person’s genes that tell others that their ancestors were most likely Italian. These findings have been scientifically proven and are now more or less general knowledge.

Now by the same token, the index finger and ring finger on the right hand have been scientifically proven to be outward indicators of the athletic potential, or lack thereof, in a woman. This research is fairly new, as of a few years ago, and was headed by SUNY Plattsburgh Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, Dr. Nancy Elwess. She was aided by Sandy Latourelle, a lecturer also from SUNY Plattsburgh, Jennifer Elwess, a physical education teacher at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in Flossmoore, IL, and Dr. William Tooke and Dr. Jeanne Ryan in the Psychology Department of SUNY Plattsburgh.

Nancy Elwess

Dr. Elwess with her students

Photo courtesy of SUNY Plattsburgh

The idea for the fingers as outward indicators for certain traits is not new. In fact, on the plane ride back from running a marathon, Elwess happened upon a small blurb in a women’s fitness magazine about this subject, but it was very general. The small, three-sentence paragraph perked her curiosity of the subject and she decided to go ahead and discover if there was a link between athletic potential and finger length. Other studies have examined the link between the length of fingers and human fertility, behavior, health and any number of other things.

Elwess’s study "takes a look at the second digit [index finger] versus the fourth digit [ring finger] on the right hand. Measure the second and divide it by the fourth and based on that ratio, it should give an indication of what variation of a certain gene that person is carrying for athletic potential,"she says.

This specific gene, called an androgen receptor gene, is isolated from each subject in the study. In this case, if would be female students in Elwess’s Biology 101 class. When the gene is studied for each individual, Elwess makes a note of how many tandem repeats—a little stretch of DNA that keeps repeating itself within the gene—that there are.

"The number of repeats kind of dictates if you are going to have a low 2D:4D ratio, which means you have good athletic potential, or if you have a high 2D:4D ratio,"Elwess says, which would swing a subject’s natural strengths in the opposite direction.

The gene itself, during development in the womb, determines how sensitive a person is to androgens, specifically testosterone and estrogen.  Basically, every woman has both hormones, but if her androgen receptor gene is more sensitive to testosterone, the woman will most likely have more athletic potential than a woman whose gene is more sensitive to estrogen.

finger ratio

Measure from the crease at the base of the finger to the tip. Divide the number from the index finger (2D) and divide it by the number from the ring finger (4D).

Latourelle, who was teaching alongside Elwess the day after she discovered the magazine article, explains her reaction to the idea: "If somebody told you that the ratio of your second and fourth finger was going to decide whether you had athletic prowess or not wouldn’t you wonder if they had all their marbles?"Many people may have similar reactions to the research but after working with Elwess and the others through the process, Latourelle is a skeptic no more.

One of the more attractive aspects of the research was that it was not very time consuming nor did it cost all that much. "It’s been good for the students, it’s been fun and we got some significant research from it," Latourelle says. "It also gave some of our students an opportunity to be involved in some real research.”

"We had a great deal of fun doing this, our students thoroughly enjoyed it and it was just another opportunity to show them that you have to question then you try to satisfy the answer, and that’s what science is all about," Latourelle says.

Dr. Kathleen Lavoie is the Dean of Arts and Sciences and a biology professor at SUNY Plattsburgh and is familiar with Elwess’s finger forecasting research. "[Elwess] is very creative and is good at finding and developing opportunities. She is also very good at getting students involved, starting with students in her classes.”

It should be mentioned that Elwess is being honored for her dedication to mentoring this Fall when she receives the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring at the White House. Lavoie goes on to explain that involving students in research as undergraduates is very common but Elwess does more than most.

Regarding Elwess’s inspiration for research from a magazine on a plane, Lavoie says, "Inspiration strikes in any place at any time. Louis Pasteur, who is a very famous microbiologist from the 1800s once said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ That is, you never know when something random is going to trigger something in your mind and make you think of a good idea and I think that’s the case here."

Take a look. Are you more artistic or more athletic?