The Puzzle of Left-handedness

September 22, 2011

The "puzzle" here, according to Rik Smits, is that while left-handedness is an enduring characteristic of humans, it has long been seen as an aberration, linked to all sorts of negativity and widely considered inferior to right-handedness. This is the view promulgated by the right-handed majority, at least, while left-handers just get on with things and "don't see themselves and their like as in any way odd, and they're entirely used to living in a right-handed world". So why should Smits, a left-hander, set out to write such a book?

A clue is found in the opening chapter, where he cites the work of Stanley Coren who, in the early 1990s, wrote a number of articles that suggested that left-handers had a shorter lifespan than right-handers, by a whopping nine years. Smits debunks this claim in a later chapter, but makes the point that if something similar had been said about another minority (and left-handers are a sizeable group, comprising around 10 per cent of the population) then there would have been protests, questions raised and further research demanded.

That this did not happen may seem a little odd, but as Smits argues, left-handers do not act like a "normal" minority group. Despite being the butt of many a joke or negative comment, they have not experienced the persecution and victimisation of other minority groups of a comparable size, such as homosexuals, but neither do they exhibit the militancy and organisation of such groups. Smits believes that this is explained by left-handers lacking either a clear shared agenda or a sense of solidarity, along with the fact that they are evenly spread through the population.

What Smits does here is not only explain how hand preference emerges but also how convention, religion, culture and superstition, among other things, have influenced ideas and attitudes related to handedness. We go on a journey that covers topics ranging from ancestral humans hunting baboons, the invention of written languages and the way great artists compose their masterpieces, to witch-hunts and cultural etiquette. All of these are used in ways that illuminate Smits' central notion, namely that the way we structure our world has implications for how we regard deviation from the norm, and specifically how it may apply to handedness.

It is a lively read, and Smits, a linguist and science writer, shows his wide range of knowledge throughout. Moreover, his journalistic side, at times inadvertently abetted by the English translation from his native Dutch, means that there are some genuinely funny passages. A downside, however, is that the linguistic and historical parts are sometimes more detailed and in depth than the science, and important ideas can be dealt with quite briefly. In the chapter "Animal Crackers", for example, no mention is made of interesting research that has been done with chimpanzees. At times, Smits is too absolute in terms of his interpretations of evidence, and is certainly unduly dismissive of some handedness research.

However, this is a minor irritation, and given the breadth and scope of the book and taking into account his background, it is probably forgivable. The book is well arranged, with mainly short, crisp chapters. I thoroughly recommend it as a good overview of issues related to hand preference, and readers, depending on their interests, may wish to rush through certain chapters in order to get to bits that pique their interest. Everyone will find something thought-provoking, witty or just interesting, regardless of personal hand preference.

The Puzzle of Left-handedness

By Rik Smits. Reaktion, 384pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781861898739. Published 21 August 2011

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