Right, Left, Right, Wrong! An investigation of handedness - some myths, truths, opinions and research


Introduction
What is Handedness?
Measuring Handedness
Handedness Statistics
Handedness and the Brain
Theories of Handedness ‣
Other Handedness Issues ‣
History of Handedness ‣
Famous Left-Handers ‣
A Few Final Thoughts
Sources
 
 
 
 
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A Few Final Thoughts
A Few Final Thoughts
I did not come to this project seeking to destroy the case for left-handed superiority, merely to gain some understanding of the phenomenon and perhaps to bring some perspective and objectivity to it. However, I will admit to being rather shocked at the sheer flimsiness of many of the claims that are routinely made for left-handed dominance in intellectual, artistic and even sporting fields. Assertions are unthinkingly and unquestioningly copied from website to website (and even respected newspaper to newspaper and book to book) which, upon closer examination, turn out to be exaggerated, unjustified or just plain erroneous. Populist books like Ed Wright’s A Left-Handed History of the World (if I were to single out just one) only serve to perpetuate such myths.

When respected left-handed scientists and researchers like Steve Christman talk about such claims and possibilities (as he does from time to time), he is at least very careful to use words such as “suspect” or “strongly suspect” and to make no definitive claims. This is not to say that all the claims and conjectures made by proponents of left-handed are necessarily false or even unreasonable, merely that I “strongly suspect” (to use Christman’s phrase) that much of it is exaggerated, over-generalized, cherry-picked and even romanticized.

Famous (Mythical) Left-Handers

How many times have you see a book or website list a number of famous left-handers, and then the question: “What would the world have been like if these people had never lived?” To my mind, this is a false premise and the wrong question. The same question could be asked of a much longer list of famous right-handers, but it would prove just as little. Frankly, the world (and literature for that matter) would have fared perfectly well without Mark Twain, for example; Babe Ruth did not change the course of history; and we could probably have lived quite nicely without Jack the Ripper and Osama bin Laden. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi did indeed change the course of history, but there is nothing essentially “left-handed” about his achievements.

The majority of the lists of famous left-handers, which can be found in such profusion on the Internet, are at best unreliable and at worst downright misleading. Exactly how some of the famous people have found their way onto these lists remains something of a mystery to me. At times, it appears almost as though a handful of “greats” have been selected from each field of endeavour, and then left-handedness ascribed to them by virtue of that alone! For example, the following (among many others) are often found listed as famous left-handers: Beethoven, Mozart, Rachmaninoff in music (all right-handed as far as we know, Rachmaninoff for sure); Picasso, Rembrandt, Rubens, van Gogh in art (all right handed); Goethe and Kafka in literature (both righties); Churchill, Jefferson, Franklin in politics (yes, right-handed); Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon in military campaigning (all right-handed to the best of our knowledge); etc.

While it is admittedly difficult to ascertain the handedness of long-dead personalities, there is often some evidence from paintings, biographies, brush-strokes, etc. In bygone centuries in particular, left-handedness was sufficiently rare and strange as to excite comment among contemporaries or biographers. Certainly, one would think that to ascribe such an unusual attribute to such celebrities should require some compelling proof - as Carl Sagan famously put it: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" (for good measure, Christopher Hitchens followed this up with: "What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof"). In the absence of such proof, we have no reason to suspect their handedness to be anything other than that of the overwhelming majority.

One tendency in particular among the list-makers appears to be to ascribe left-handedness to any genius or great thinker who shows unusual thought processes, mildly anti-social behaviour or general “wackiness”. Hence the inclusion in many Internet lists of left-handers of people like Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Friedrich Nietzsche, Alan Turing, Charles Darwin, Pablo Picasso, Lewis Carroll, Marcel Marceau, Bobby Fischer, Jim Carrey, etc, despite evidence to the contrary. A little research (on websites other than Buzzle.com, RandomHistory.com, FamousWhy.com, Answers.Yahoo.com, AnythingLeft-Handed.co.uk, etc) reveals that these and many other geniuses are in fact definitively right-handed (or, in one or two cases, there is merely nothing to suggest left-handedness).

Some have made it onto the left-handed Roll of Honour though what appear to be genuine errors. For example, Billy the Kid is regularly claimed as a left-hander despite clear recent proof that the only existing photograph of him is a tintype (or ferrograph), in which the image was always reversed during processing. J. Edgar Hoover apparently had a strange phobia against turning left, and is rumoured to have been gay (or “left-handed” in the American slang of the day), but he certainly wrote with his right hand and there is no evidence that his handedness was anything other than right. Right-hander Thomas Jefferson is sometimes classified as left-handed, apparently purely on the basis of one letter written with his left hand after he had broken his right wrist in 1786. C.P.E Bach’s status as a left-hander appears to rest on the evidence of his transcription of a keyboard piece for left-hand solo, probably for a specific client (ditto Ravel and Rachmaninov). Lord Baden-Powell was a keen supporter of learned ambidexterity, and instituted a left-handed handshake among his newly formed Boy Scouts (based on an African tribe he encountered who did so to show trust by lowering their shields), but there seems to be little or no evidence of his actually being left-handed. Such werrors are perhaps understandable, but the point is that such errors need to be recognized and admitted, and not repeated and perpetuated.

More details on these and many other spurious (or probably spurious) left-handers can be found in the section on Famous Left-Handers, as well as in specific sections like Handedness and Intellect, Handedness and Music, Handedness and Artistic Ability, Handedness and Sport, Handedness and Military Leadership, etc.

Some Other Common Errors

It is often claimed that left-handers as a group have historically produced a disproportionate number of high achievers. Many books and websites are fond of listing left-handers in a particular field, and then generalizing from that a particular trait which may - or may not - be plausibly connected to left-handedness (once again Ed Wright’s A Left-Handed History of the World comes to mind). Great care should be taken with such claims, many of which are more leaps of faith than scientifically grounded assertions.

A common example is that of left-handed military leaders, among which Alexander the Great, Ramses II, Julius Caesar, Commodus, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Edward III, Joan of Arc, Fidel Castro and General Norman Schwarzkopf are often listed (almost all of whom, by the way, with the notable exception of Schwarzkopf, actually turn out to be right-handed). The implication given is that left-handers make good military leaders by virtue of their left-handedness, and the justification for such a conclusion (where one is offered) is likely to be along the lines that their acute sense of navigation, strategic planning and visualization is enabled by the left-handers’ unique brain organization. Such a claim may not be necessarily wrong (although, as we have seen elsewhere in this website, it is certainly not quite as simple as that), but the greater mistake is to make a rule out of such anecdotal evidence and cherry-picked data. Also, just listing some famous names offers no prima facie reason to suppose that the overall numbers of left-handed military leaders are anything other than what one would expect from the left-handed proportion of the population as a whole.

Another potential pitfall of left-handed claims is the assumption of causality where none necessarily exists. Another example might illustrate this. Some research has suggested that 19% of chess players (of all levels) are left-handed, substantially higher than the 10-12% of left-handers in the population as a whole. The explanation offered for this is the aptitude of the left-hander’s brain for strategizing and visualization. Once again this may not be wholly wrong, but it may certainly be misleading, and the left-handed brain organization may well not be the cause of such a statistic. Without further investigation, it is just as plausible that those left-handed chess players may (to use a slightly facetious example) just failed to make the football or basketball team and found themselves with a lot of spare time on their hands which they decided to devote to less athletic endeavours.

Glibness, Conjectures and Simplifications

Statistics may be cherry-picked or used out of context or without perspective
Another example of this kind of glibness is the much mentioned over-representation of left-handed American Presidents in recent years (a subject which is treated in more detail in the section on Handedness and Politics). It is all too easy to quote statistics out of context or without perspective, or to cherry-pick data or time periods or geographical areas. Phrases like “statistically significant” are often used with less than mathematical rigour in many of these conversations. It should be remembered that, although statistically improbable, it is still not all that unusual to throw five heads in a row in the real world from time to time. Flukes and statistical quirks are part of the fabric of life.

It is also all too easy to offer plausible sounding conjectures and convenient explanations which remain, for all that, merely conjectures. For example, it is often suggested that the left-handed Presidents have been actively strengthened by their fight against negative stereotyping and cultural bias (although it is actually difficult to find evidence of any systematic discrimination against left-handers in the modern Western world), or perhaps as a result of their innate stubbornness and pushiness (which here are elevated to positive traits common to all left-handers), or by merit of their unconventional right-brained thinking, or their innate linguistic skills or empathy (which are also put forward as the exclusive preserve of left-handers). Indeed, it almost begs the question of how so many right-handed leaders have managed to succeed without the benefit of the left-handers’ natural aptitude for politics. Unfortunately, though, this linking of character traits with left-handedness is not supported by recent developments in neurology (see the section on Handedness and the Brain), and it also ignores the fact that much of the so-called divergent thinking of modern politicians is actually carried out by advisors, handlers, policy wonks and advertising bureaus).

A similar line of reasoning has also been extended to other spheres of endeavour. To suggest, as I have seen, that a work like Alice in Wonderland could only come from the unconventional imagination of a left-hander such as Lewis Carroll is clearly bunkum (especially given that Carroll was probably not left-handed at all, merely another of those mysterious “rumoured” left-handers).

Flexible thinking and intuition is manifestly not limited purely to left-handers. As we have seen in the section on Handedness and the Brain, a left-hander's brain is not simply a mirror image of a right-hander’s brain and many of the claims and stereotypes of left-handedness have arisen from a simplified and unrigorous view of the left-handed brain which is just not borne out by the findings of modern science. Similarly, to characterize right-handers as “change-resistant” and “linear” based on their brain organization is a gross over-simplification, only possible at all because, within nine-tenths of the population of the world, there will always be many right-handers who do fit such a profile.

In short, it is quite conceivable that the random cerebral variation inherent in the less asymmetrical brain organization of some left-handers may lead to a few exceptional politicians, song-writers and authors, and a few individuals of exceptional intellect. But, by its very nature, such random behaviour will also tend to lead to left-handers with extremely poor political or song-writing skills and extremely low intellectual performance, while the average will likely remain comparable to the average abilities of right-handers. Indeed, this has been convincingly borne out (at least in terms of intellectual performance) by recent scientific studies.

Conclusion

In conclusion, whatever the causes of left-handedness - whether genetic, biological, evolutionary, societal, or, as is more likely, a combination of all of these - I make this plea to all left-handers: not to muddy the waters by indulging in pseudo-science and psycho-babble in defence of their handedness, and not to perpetuate myths not based on fact, nor to repeat claims and dubious statistics because they are convenient or self-fulfilling. By all means, be proud of your handedness, if you see it as something worth being proud of, in the same way as you would be proud of being blessed with long legs or a quick brain. But avoid using it as a wedge, as a way to express otherness, to pick sides, or to allege discrimination and victimization.

Handedness is a complex and intriguing issue, as well as a fascinating area of research which remains ongoing and constantly developing, but the full story is not yet clear. Time will no doubt reveal all…

 

Back to Top of Page
Introduction | What is Handedness? | Measuring Handedness | Handedness Statistics | Handedness and the Brain | Theories of Handedness | Other Handedness Issues | History of Handedness | Famous Left-Handers | A Few Final Thoughts | Sources
 
© 2012 Luke Mastin