Why do (most of us) have 10 toes? - (9/28/2021)

By Dr. Ron Gasbarro

Is there a grandparent alive who does not think his grandchild is the smartest, cleverest, most creative human being God ever shot across the bow? So, when the grandson, Luke, learned to count to 10 at age 4, the pharmacist was beyond ecstatic. By age 5 – and just bear with the pharmacist’s syrupy adoration – numbers started to have meanings – from knowing them in sequence to actually counting things. “You have 5 red hot rods and 5 yellow hot rods.” Luke immediately knew that he had 10 hot rods. Genius!

The other day, Luke came out of his bedroom and asked, “Why do we have 10 toes? And why five on each toe?’ Luke asked. “Isn’t that an odd number?” The pharmacist dropped the mentholated suppositories he was making right there on the kitchen floor. “Odd number? Do you mean an unusual number?” the pharmacist asked. “No,” replied Luke. “I mean an odd number. Like even numbers, you know, 2, 4, 6, 8.” Jeezaloo! Call Harvard! Call Yale! We got an Einstein on our hands! But let’s contain ourselves. A smart question like that deserves a smart answer.  

Why do we have 10 toes? Ask an evolutionary biologist and you are likely to get a simple answer: We have 10 toes (and 10 fingers) because, somewhere in our species' past Darwinian migrations, those numbers gave us an evolutionary advantage. At one time, deep into our prehistoric past, there was likely a colony of zero-toed people. But they could not balance themselves as they went out hunting brontosaurus for brunch. Instead, they fell down and could not reproduce very well. Pretty soon, they were toast. Yet, a few of them coupled with 12-toed people in the next town who were clumsy, yet mobile. After millennia of trial and error, the 10-toed people survived and here we are today, and with some smart footwear to boot. 

“But not all animals have 10 toes,” Luke wisely observed. “I saw a deer in a book, and it only had 2 toes. And on our field trip to a farm, the cows only had 2 toes.” “Wow, this kid is brilliant,” thought the pharmacist. Is it too early to start teaching him algebra? The pharmacist noted that deer and cows have the advantage of having 4 legs but no arms. "Deer can run very fast on their legs," he said. "Cows, not so much, but we need them to make chocolate milk and grilled cheese sandwiches, so they run slower." 

“Do all people have 10 toes?” asked Luke. “Nope. Some people are born with a different number of toes,” recounted the pharmacist. “And sometimes doctors can fix that.” The pharmacist continued to explain that some people lose toes through accidents, frostbite, and even diseases such as diabetes. People with diabetes must take their medications correctly, or else they might lose the circulation in their baby toe, and it would have to be amputated. 

“Which toe is the best toe?” asked Luke. “I think it’s the big toe.” Holy mackerel, thought the pharmacist, this kid is going to get a Nobel Prize, like, for everything. “Yes, Luke, the big toe is the best. It supports 40 percent of our body weight. And if we didn’t have two big toes, then we would tumble over in the weeds and mess up our hair.” At this point, Luke was squirming, and I was reminded that he was only 5 and a half.

The pharmacist concluded, “Our toes are very important, and we wear shoes to protect them. Did you ever stub your toe?” Ignoring the question, he yelled “I want to have 10 toes on each foot!” Luke laughed crazily and ran out into the backyard, probably forgetting this deeply profound discussion ever took place.  

Ron Gasbarro, PharmD, is a recovering pharmacist and writer-in-residence at Rx-Press.


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