What's left?

Editorial Notebook

September 22, 2007|By WILL ENGLAND

Either/or. Good/bad. Black/white.

Left/right.

Maybe not such a useful way of looking at the world.

Gradations complicate. Complication is what life is actually about. Relativism - sinister bedevilment though it may be - is real.

Because it means something to me, I want to look at left and right. Every intact person has two hands - yin and yang, east and west - and 9 people out of 10 are classified as right-handers, 1 out of 10 as lefties. (That's me, the 1 out of a random 10.) It's a pretty basic source of identity. Left-handers' brains are wired up differently; the right hemisphere is dominant. You're one or the other.

But left-handers - maybe because we're in some fundamental way apart from the rest of society, which forces us to understand that society more fully - know that life as actually lived is considerably fuzzier. Every left-hander is good, to some degree, at doing certain things right-handed. I throw a football with my right hand. I couldn't begin to throw a baseball with it. I use right-handed scissors, because I only tried left-handed ones after I'd become an adult, and they're just weird. But cutting a loaf of bread right-handed strikes me as so reckless that it bothers me even to watch right-handers do it.

Lefties have a well-documented advantage as fencers - so much so, that several left-handed fencing champions are right-handers in civilian life. It's like learning to bat left-handed. It's not an insurmountable challenge.

This week, Current Biology published a paper by researchers who were interested in the growth of the southpaw population, up from just 3 percent of those born a century ago. Ian McManus and Alex Hartigan, of University College London, studied old documentary films, from the early 20th century, after devising a correlation between the number of people who can be seen waving left-handed in the films and the percentage of those who would be natural left-handed writers if they lived today. (This method works, I'm quite sure.)

They found that there was a heavy skewing among left-handers in those films toward older people. When they ran the numbers, it suggested that about 10 percent of those who were born toward the beginning of the Victorian era were left-handed - just the same as today - but that the second half of the 19th century saw a rather drastic decline.

The likely explanation, they believe, has to do with the introduction of manufacturing and universal schooling - and the abrupt standardization that went with them. Lefties didn't fit in, and if they were less successful in life and thus less successful in finding spouses, they would have had fewer children. It's either that, or, if you're forced to write right-handed (by a teacher with a ruler) and forced to run a loom right-handed (by a boss who'd be happy to find someone else if you couldn't), you might just start waving with your right hand, too, at least when the moving-picture man is cranking his camera.

So how did lefties bounce back? Less standardization, maybe, and more jobs with keyboards (which have most of the important letters on the left), and the relaxation of the lefty ban in penmanship class. I once interviewed a Russian teacher who believed that the increase in left-handedness was a symptom of the sickness of her society - so maybe that's happening here, too.

But is 10 percent the natural, immutable ratio? I don't think so. A 1990 study found that 75 percent of the people who live on the Arctic coast of Siberia, on the Taimyr Peninsula, were left-handed. The researchers suggested that left-handedness might lend some advantage in surviving the cold.

But to me, a more interesting study, from the University of Manitoba, involves an examination of bones from Medieval Europe. Any autopsy today would easily reveal whether a person was left- or right-handed, because of the size of the bones at the elbow. But not with peasants from the Middle Ages; their elbows are roughly similar. Overt left-handedness was seen as a sign of wickedness - but apparently that didn't stop people from naturally using both hands freely in the course of their work.

They weren't left-handed - but were they left/right-handed? If there isn't a slot, do you still have to fit into one?

-Will Englund

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