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Question Your World: How'd We Get Our Hips?

Belts, hula hoops, and the hokey pokey are just a few examples of things that involve the use of our hips. So, how did we end up with our hips anyway? Listen to the latest Question Your World Radio Report from the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

According to the English Daily Slang Dictionary a ‘square’ is a plain, boring person; someone who is out of touch with the latest trends. The example given is “Michael is such a square -- I’ve never met anyone so boring.”

If you did not want to be a square in the early 80’s you would need to get your hands on a bright new fanny pack! A storage unit designed for one of the most important parts of the human body, the hips. Our hips allow us to be upright, turn, balance, and have played a very important role in the evolution of our species. So, the big question is how did we get these things?

Well, recently some scientists have been studying the history of our hips and have been able to trace them all the way back to some old fishy relatives. This story will involve going backwards on the tree of life. Our evolutionary design is a byproduct of billions of years of evolution on Earth. Each species customizes itself over time and more often than not starts the evolutionary changes that will lead to the introduction of a brand new species, over a long, long, long time.

Part of this involves the development of various body-parts that make all the different species on the planet what they are. For example, chances are you probably did not have a horn or a set of wings at any point in your life. Those parts did not develop in you because over the long process of evolution you ended up with a nose, lungs, toes, fingers, and of course your hips. But no wings and no horns.

So, scientists started to look at embryos in their developmental stages to examine what structures and forms exist early on. Humans along with other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and birds are all considered tetrapods. Tetrapods are animals with four limbs. Knowing this we can safely say that our hips did not develop from animals that had hips already, but instead we need to find animals that don’t have hips, but carry the developmental code for hips. If we trace if back down the tree of life we will find ourselves looking at fish.

In this recent study scientists did just that. They compared human and fish embryo and found a pretty remarkable developmental sign. The fish and human embryo share a lot in early developmental stages. As the embryos develop they start to specialize based on what evolution has dictated over a long period of time. For example, fish embryo develop full-fledged gills to allow that species to efficiently thrive in an environment where gills are needed. Human embryos however don’t develop fully functional gills because we don’t need them. Similarly, fish have the genetic information to grow hips, but as the embryo develops it does not activate that feature since they don’t need them. Humans on the other hand go full on into hip-development. After all, how would humans do basic human tasks like hunting, building houses, or the Macarena without hips? 

Those 80’s fanny pack designers were onto something- a product that takes perfect advantage of one of the most specialized parts of our genetic development. So, millions avoided squaredom by putting a fanny pack on their specialized human hips. Incidentally one of the biggest pop hits of the 80’s was the song “It’s Hip To Be Square.”

Article by Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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