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Handedness

in February 2011 - The Nature of Things

If you are left-handed, and have wondered why you are so inclined, this piece is for you. The chance is that you are a special person. I’m not. I’m right-handed. An interest in, you could say a minor obsession with, handedness in animals and humans has been with me for most of my life. More particularly, I’ve tried to keep up with the latest findings affecting the causes of left-handedness in people. More so since I lost my place to a left-hander in the cricket team at school.

My boys-only class, a small one by today’s standards, in primary school included a left-handed, somewhat puny, kid who had red hair and freckles to boot. The rest of us teased him in the cruellest of ways, as only little boys are capable of. He, and us, regarded his left-handedness as an impediment. So much so that he tried to hide it. All of this, however, began to change when, at the age of about twelve, he suddenly grew bigger than the rest of us. Not only that, he began to excel as a left-handed batter and bowler on the cricket field. We stopped teasing, and changed to admiring, him. He was a champion cricket player throughout his time in high school. Have you noticed how many left-handers there are in top-flight cricket, internationally?

On average, throughout the world, left-handers account for ten percent of the human population. It’s an interesting proportion for several reasons, made even more interesting by the fact that men are fifty per cent more likely to be left-handed than women. Hence, there are relatively few left-handed women. These ratios appear to hold irrespective of race, but not always culture. In Japan, for instance, where a premium is placed on conformist behaviour, left-handers amount to no more than five per cent of the population. This, almost certainly, is a reflection of a societal reluctance to admit to left-handedness. In any event, why should there be more left-handed men than women. The answer will come after a brief historical digression of sorts.

Dogma of the European Dark Ages had ready answers for everything. The word sinister is derived from the Latin for left. Male left-handers were the sons of Satan. They were shunned. Getting a wife was hard. Females were worse off. They were branded and burnt as witches. Neither the gods nor Satan were, or are, responsible for creating left-handers. It’s testosterone that did, and does, it for left-handers. At least, that seems to be it for men. It also would explain how left-handed men are more abundant than left-handed women. The leading theory, at the moment, is that left-handedness is caused by an excess of testosterone in the womb of the foetus’s mother. It’s much more complicated than that, of course. If it’s correct, however, it tells us how left-handers are created, but not why they are created. In other words, what is the selective advantage attending some pregnant women, and not others, who produce an excess of testosterone for their foetuses. We don’t know for sure, but we do know that it’s apparently a uniquely human attribute. All the other primates, including the great apes, are handed in the sense that they favour using either a right or a left hand, but the ratio between the two is about equal. I repeat, it’s only human beings which have a ratio of 90 per cent and 10 per cent for right-handedness and left-handedness, respectively. While there is plenty of speculation around this, there is no conclusive evidence for why our unique trait has evolved.

One popular notion is that our ultimately genetically determined left-handedness has survived because of its surprise value in hand-to-hand combat. Obviously, if too many men were to become left-handed the element of surprise in combat with right-handers would be diminished. Perhaps. I would argue, however, that there is much more to our left-handedness. In short, the brains of left-handers differ from those of right-handers. For instance, left-handers tend to have relatively more cerebral diversity. This makes them more inclined towards unorthodox inventive behaviour. They are lateral thinkers (no bad pun intended).

Neurologically speaking, the right and left hemispheres of our brains have different cognitive functions. Moreover, the right side controls the left side of the body. It controls, for example, our visual and spatial faculties. Giving effect to this would enhance the performances of left-handed, for example, cricketers, architects and painters, over right-handed ones. Indeed, statistics back this proposition, with cricket and tennis teams, and architectural firms, embracing disproportionately high numbers of left-handers. Michelangelo, Leonardo and Raphael, for example, were all left-handed artists of genius-like quality.

I’ll have to stop the name calling of left-handed geniuses now. There simply are too many of them. Taken together, these people, men and women, have over time disproportionately influenced the course of history and enhanced civilisation. To avoid any gender bias in my name-calling, however, I must tell you that Joan of Arc, Queen Victoria and Marie Curie were left-handers.

Left-handers tend to be above-average achievers. Five of the last seven presidents of the USA have been left-handers. Barack Obama and John McCain are left-handed. Our own F.W. De Klerk is left-handed. Left-handers tend to be takers of risks, somewhat hot-tempered (think of John McEnroe), musical and intuitive. Our world would be immeasurably poorer without left-handed people. This has been made clear during the last fifty years or so. Yet a legacy of prejudice lives on.

You have to be unorthodox to succeed as an individual in a right-hander’s world in which so many things are the wrong way round. Think of scissors and tin-openers, for example. It’s perhaps not unexpected that left-handed people have to constantly strive to be at the cutting edge of life. I don’t know about Cape Town, but I’ve been made aware of a store in London that sells all sorts of devices, including surgical instruments, for left-handers. They, finally, are getting the proper recognition that they deserve.


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