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The fantasy creature I am imagining (planning a short story or two around) satisfies the following analogy:

Human is to Chimpanzee as "This Thing" is to Badger.

That is, the creature has a clear relationship to badgers, such as similar anatomy and behavioral inclinations. But it has also become much more highly evolved and sentient: i.e. tool use, its own religions/mythologies, sophisticated language both written and oral, a structured society with organized government, etc...

I want this creature to retain a clear affinity for burrowing and living underground, eating tubers and worms found underground, making a living extracting minerals from the ground, artwork that relies on things like roots and clay, and so on. Thus it needs to still have digging claws, although it may use picks and shovels for larger and more difficult digging. At the same time, it needs to be able to hold a paper and pencil, make intricate carvings, use needle and thread, and indeed to swing those same picks and shovels.

How would evolution handle this?

I can accept very broad explanations, I prefer to paint my world with a wide stroke, if not with a broom.

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  • $\begingroup$ Nice question, welcome to the site. $\endgroup$ – James Jul 10 '15 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ Now I can't stop thinking about furry dwarves! Gah!! $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 10 '15 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre furry dwarves or Furry dwarves? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furry_fandom $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Jul 10 '15 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Frostfyre: Exactly! What would Tolkien-esque dwarves have been like if they had been mustelids instead of primates? $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Jul 10 '15 at 14:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonHutchinson: Not necessarily: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… $\endgroup$ – cobaltduck Jul 10 '15 at 14:56
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Well a badger getting a thumb isn't hard to envision, racoons basically have thumbs, and claws. It's a little harder thinking about large digging claws with hands, but only a little.

I would expect that the claws would actually become very useful and versatile tools in all their work. It would also affect the direction of their artistic areas. Finger painting would likely be out but carving would be a HUGE area of artistic endeavor.

Pen and Paper? What ever for? Scratch your orders into a piece of wood. No need for writing utensils when you always carry one with you! Pencils are a pretty modern invention, and chalk like stuff was used, but what would be the need with claws? On top of that, early pens were quills dipped in ink, a clean well manicured claw would be even better, and in medieval times the manicured claw could be a 'symbol' of profession or status as one you can read/write.

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  • $\begingroup$ I really like this idea - or even further, if the writing claw(s) are filed/notched, making them stand out even more. I wonder how writing style would evolve if different characters/symbols took different numbers of claws. $\endgroup$ – CodeMoose Jul 10 '15 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ I like most of this except the idea of using wood in place of paper. Without other changes, wood is simply too valuable for most writing and too heavy for longer works. They would likely use wax covered wood tablets for writing with a short expected life. The ancient greeks did this. They would likely develop something paper like for writings meant to last for a long time, though perhaps with a ink-dipped claw in place of a quill. $\endgroup$ – TimothyAWiseman Jan 23 '18 at 20:50
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The tools you mention need thumbs because they were created by creatures that have thumbs. I suppose that if a creature was intellect enough to use tools it would craft in a way to fit its anatomy. For small things like a pen or a needle it could use its claws like chop sticks, and for the more heavy tools it may have crafted them like gloves or extensions of its arms, or even make them in a way that you would need both hands to operate them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point: look at the New Caladonian Crow. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 10 '15 at 22:44
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The fine motor skills necessary for operating tools are difficult when your finger/claw ratios are as low as a badger's. Even with opposable thumbs, a badger's fingers aren't long enough to allow it to grasp an object (at least not in the way that a human grasps something, with fingers completely encircling it). Their claws may be able to encircle an object but with no joints in the claws, their control over it would be poor. For a badger-like species to evolve to the point where they would be likely to create and use hand tools, it's likely that you would see their fingers get longer and their claws get shorter. They would still be able to dig, but not as effectively. This would presumably be offset by their ability to use tools that are even more effective than claws.

A badger-based species could also retain their claws culturally instead of biologically. Their physical claws could have evolved down to the point of being purely ornamental, but the species could traditionally fashion their tools to resemble claws. For example: instead of using a shovel, they could use a glove with large steel digging claws attached to it. This would merge the two worlds, giving them the traditional digging claws while treating them like a tool (that is, they can use them when appropriate, and not be burdened by them otherwise).

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Possible evolutionary pressures (some of all could be acting simultaneously):

  • You need to dig through harder ground to get to better area. Opposable thumb allows you to wield a digging stick that is far superior to your claws

  • Holding a digging stick allows you to preserve your claws, making you fitter overall

  • Your ancestors developed ability to walk between two patches of soft diggable ground. Same reason fish developed lungs and other land-based adaptations.

    The claws make it easy to see why erect gait developed instead of 4-legged one (plus, being erect helps you see predators further), and that's pretty much leading to same evolutionary territory as Homo Erectus had for developing opposable thumb. See summary here: http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~kemmer/Evol/opposablethumb.html

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