kccu

Left-Handedness: No Longer Suspect; Still A Mystery

Jan 1, 2012
Originally published on January 1, 2012 5:24 pm

There's a handful of people — roughly 10 percent of the global population — that has something in common.

Many mysteries and misconceptions surround this group. Its members have been called artistically gifted and self-reliant, but also untrustworthy and insincere. Most recently, several of them have been called the president of the United States.

Yes, we're talking about left-handers. Author Rik Smits is left-handed himself, which was good preparation for his new book, The Puzzle of Left-handedness. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Rebecca Sheir that extreme prejudice against left-handers is actually quite recent.

"Throughout history, Western history that is ... there has always been a sort of negative whiff around left-handedness, because it was different, and therefore a bit, well, suspect," Smits says.

But, he adds, most people didn't really care that much about it. Even the witch-hunters of the Middle Ages didn't consider left-handedness evil.

"Now that's strange," Smits says, "because everything they could lay their hands on was used to condemn people in those days."

No, it took the invention of modern psychology to really give lefties a bad rap.

"That's when you find these very stern people who really think that we left-handers are really bad and maladjusted and sick," Smits says.

He says that if you look outside Western history and science, you will find places where lefties aren't as stigmatized.

"The Chinese, they simply don't have the same kind of negative connotations to the left that we have," he says.

Western culture is oriented toward opposites like black and white, good and evil, left and right, but "the Chinese don't do that. They have this, let's say, this more harmonious idea of opposites that are complements to one another."

While science was quick to condemn left-handers — though those theories are now discredited — it has been less quick to come up with an explanation for the phenomenon. Smits says hand preference isn't inherited the way other traits like eye and hair color are, and no one's really sure why it arose in the first place.

Some animals do show paw preferences, Smits says. But unlike humans, who are consistently about 10 percent left-handed, about a quarter of any given population of animals — mice, for example — will prefer the right paw, a quarter will prefer the left paw and the rest don't care.

There are some advantages to preferring the left hand over the right. Smits says some athletes, in particular, have better luck with the left hand. But if you're a musician in an orchestra or a soldier in an army, you may be in trouble.

"You wouldn't want one violinist to bow away one way from all the others," he says. "You get a bloodbath on stage."

And if you're thinking that being a lefty might give you a hand up on the national political stage, Smits says don't hold your breath.

"It's a very small community, presidents," he says. "It's very slow in growing, so your chances are still about nil in getting there, and left-handedness, I don't think it will be a real advantage in that respect. No, a quick mind and a quick mouth is probably better."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

A handful of people in the world, roughly 10 percent of the population, has something rather particular in common. They've been called artistically gifted and self-reliant but also untrustworthy and insincere. A lot of mysteries and misconception surround this group, actually, which is of special interest to me since, well, I'm a part of it.

We're talking about left-handed people, and the man we'll meet next knows a thing or two about the subject. Not only is Rik Smits a lefty himself, but his new book, "The Puzzle of Left-Handedness," dives into the history, culture and science of hand preference.

RIK SMITS: Throughout history, there was - Western history, I should say, there has always been a sort of negative whiff around left-handedness, but it wasn't taken very far, usually. For instance, if you look at the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, left-handedness was never, never used as a real, real sign of the devil, for one thing.

Now, that's strange because everything that they could lay their hands on was used to condemn people in those days. The stigma got worse once psychology was invented at the end of the 19th century, and that's when you find these very stern people who really think that we left-handers are really maladjusted and sick and what have you.

SHEIR: Was it Abram Blau who talked about infantile negativism in left-handed people?

SMITS: Yeah, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITS: Oh, he was - he can't have been a fun person.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: What did he mean by that, infantile negativism?

SMITS: Well, he thought that children were willfully left-handed just to spite their parents, basically, which is completely bullocks. Try and find left-handers whom you suspect of being left-handed just to spite you. Well, you won't be able to find them. They're just normal, ordinary people.

SHEIR: I know there are places you mention in your book, like China, for instance, where they do not discriminate.

SMITS: The Chinese, they simply don't have the same kind of negative connotations to the left that we have. We have a culture - let's say the Christian culture - Christian-based cultures are very much oriented towards opposites, black and white, good and bad, left and right. It's also dichotomies that we live by. And the Chinese don't do that, don't have this, let's say, this more harmonious idea of opposites that are complements to one another to form a harmonic hole, the yin and yang principle.

And within that idea, the whole idea of good and bad as things that are - all with their backs to one another and really are each other's enemy, doesn't - simply doesn't arise.

SHEIR: Well, you write about several possible explanations for why people are left-handed. But I get the impression we don't really have an answer to why we prefer one hand over another.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

No. And that's basically because science is still sort of guessing at what goes on inside our skulls. And what you see is that left-handedness has some sort of a (unintelligible) component, but it's not neat. It doesn't conform to what you would normally expect. So you have to look for something special, something (unintelligible). And this is what people have tried to do with, well, marginal success, because there's nothing, really, that explains the whole phenomenon.

SHEIR: Like, there are advantages to being left-handed?

SMITS: Yes. If you are a sportsman, like tennis or baseball or boxing, anything that has two adversaries in sort of personal combat, people think that that is because right-handers have very few chances of training with left-handers, whereas left-handers can always train with right-handers.

SHEIR: On the flipside then, do we have clear evidence of when being a lefty is actually a real disadvantage?

SMITS: In the army, in a big orchestra, that's where you're really at a disadvantage. You wouldn't want one violinist to bow away the other way from all the others. You'd get a bloodbath on the stage. I mean, the army is exactly the same thing. You need everybody to have his sword or his gun or whatever throughout history. You always want everybody to behave exactly the same. That's where the strength of an army is. And if somebody sort of breaks ranks, what you get is, well, a real risk for everybody.

SHEIR: So that's a clear disadvantage, although I guess it does help...

SMITS: If you want to go in to the military, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: But if you want to be president of the United States, for example?

SMITS: Well, it's a nice coincidence that five out of the seven last presidents are left-handed. But don't get up your hopes too far. It's a very small community, presidents. It's very slow in growing, so your chances are still about nil of getting there. And left-handedness, I don't think it will be a real advantage in that respect. Now, a quick mouth and a quick mind is probably better.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: Rik Smits is the author of "The Puzzle of Left-Handedness." He joined me from Amsterdam. Thank so much, Rik.

SMITS: OK. Glad to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.