The Real Reason Humans Have Fingernails

Humans are the products of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Over the millennia, we've shared some similarities with our biological cousins, the apes, while we've also evolved bigger brains and other tools that have given us an evolutionary advantage — survival of the fittest, and all that. Evolution has also rid us of some things we no longer need, such as tails.

However, for reasons that remain elusive to scientists, we still have fingernails. They don't really seem to do much: they're good for scratching an itch or peeling an orange, and well-manicured nails make a strong statement about fashion and grooming. But other than that, there doesn't seem to be much reason for them.

Indeed, the scientific community is still trying to figure out why we have fingernails at all. Are they an evolutionary vestige that we still haven't gotten rid of? Do they serve a functional purpose that we haven't yet figured out yet? Or are they the biological remnants of claws, something that we needed at one time but no longer do. The reason we still have fingernails may actually be quite simple.

Fingernails actually serve multiple purposes

According to Australia's ABC News, our ape ancestors had claws and used them to grip things (particularly for climbing), and indeed many simians still have claws and use them for those purposes. H. sapiens evolved away from claws and towards the broad and flat fingernails we have now. Long story short: they evolved that way because they help us pick things up — a much more useful skill to us than climbing.

Similarly, according to Healthline, fingernails serve other purposes. For example, the hand and thick nails protect the sensitive network of capillaries and nerves at that part of the tip of the finger. This in turn provides protection and stability when picking things up. Further, the nails protect that part of the skin from bacteria and viruses that might enter the body. And of course, it bears noting that fingernails are useful for fine motor skills such as flipping the pages of a book, or the aforementioned scratching an itch.

It bears noting that fingernails are not strictly necessary for survival, and indeed, it's not unlikely that anyone reading this article may lose one or more fingernails at some point in their life, yet still live a full and active life.