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Heymatt: If most people are right-handed, I was wondering why. I couldn’t think of a good reason for that, so is there one? I’m sure your science guys can let me know. I’m a leftie, and sometimes it’s a pain because the world is set up for righties. — Leftie Linda, via email

Yeah? Well, way way back in the day, we righties beat the junk out of you lefties with rocks and swords, mostly because we were right dominant. We were able to easily protect the significant vessels on the left side of our chests and were set up to smash the same vulnerable body parts in you guys. More righties survived, so the world’s population was skewed in our genetic favor since the days of the dinos. At least that’s one theory proposed for why every population, culture, nationality, whatever and wherever around the globe is right dominated. Of course, none of them agree as to how right dominated we are. Somewhere between 70 and 95 percent is the best they can do right ­now.

To accept that idea, you have to believe that handedness is genetically inherited. Not many science guys buy that. From their investigations, they believe that maybe DNA has some teeny role to play, but they really haven’t a clue what that might be. A theme we’ll hear ­repeated.

Handedness has always fascinated us. Science guys have frittered away their professional time poking at people’s hands and brains for more than 150 years. And they’ve even looked at handedness in utero. Once the brain of a fetus has established two distinct hemispheres, it starts sucking its thumb. Once again, right dominant. Head-turning is also mostly to the right. The parents’ handedness isn’t particularly related to the ­baby’s.

One observation that seems to have attracted some attention is the fact that the left side of the brain (which controls the right hand) is also closely linked with speech. Speech requires a certain amount of fine motor control, as does handedness. Putting the two together in the same head space is an efficient way to build a brain. That theory’s got legs. But it’s still just a ­theory.

How about scoping out our near hairy relatives. Consider one researcher who works with gorillas, chimps, and monkeys. She noted that individual animals sometimes show a preference for working with one hand or the other, but it was all sort of casual, and there certainly was no indication that any of the groups of beasties showed a preference for one hand over another. Righties don’t dominate. The whole experimental monkey-watching thing sounded pretty boring, to tell you the ­truth.

If we’re right-handed, are we right-footed and right-eyed too? Not necessarily. If we’re born leftie, will we be lefty our whole lives through? Not necessarily. It was once common for teachers to force little lefties to switch to using their right hands, and the switch was made fairly easily. Social customs in some countries demand that people use their right hands for eating and all interpersonal actions (shaking hands, etc.), since it’s assumed one uses one’s left hands for bathroom hygiene. There’s even a certain evil and nastiness connected to being left-handed, but we won’t go into ­that.

So, after 150 years of research we seem to have a big pile of nothing, which makes the whole subject even more fascinating, I think.

Hey Matt: Was oxygen ever discovered? If so, wouldn’t it be the gaseous equivalent of Columbus discovering a land already inhabited by people? If it has yet to be discovered, would you mind if I got to name it? — Jay, via email

Back up, Jay. It’s discovered, it’s named. The three discoverers of oxygen are even now fistfighting in heaven over who’s number one. Chronologically, number one (1772) was a Swede, Carl Sheele, who isolated oxygen from air with lots of flaming, sparking experiments, producing a bag full of the gas. He called the stuff fire air but was slow to publish findings. Your bad luck, Carl, since a Brit, Joseph Priestly (1774), juggled mice and mint leaves and candles and other stuff to prove that his bag of gas was a kind of air. Enter Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier (1775), who identified the gas as an element and named it oxygen. Most people pick Priestly as the winner, since he published first.

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Matthew_Alice Aug. 26, 2010 @ 9:45 a.m.

Mindy -- I think what you're called is multidexterous. Different from ambidexterous, where you can do the same thing (like pitch a ball) with both hands. Me, I guess I'm ampudexterous. So right-handed that you could amputate my left and I'd never miss it.

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Matthew_Alice Aug. 27, 2010 @ 9:51 a.m.

Amazing how evil teachers could be to kids who did things with their left hands. And why would teachers feel the need to do this? I say "Go lefties!" More creative, more interesting. Even if it's hard to fit into a right-handed world.

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David Dodd Aug. 29, 2010 @ 12:49 a.m.

"Social customs in some countries demand that people use their right hands for eating and all interpersonal actions (shaking hands, etc.), since it’s assumed one uses one’s left hands for bathroom hygiene."

My guess is that this is how humans developed to be mostly right-handed. When clans would feed (back before fast food, T.V. dinners, utensils, and probably even tables and chairs), it was always a clan affair, people ate from the same pile of grub. I'm sure that people caught on real quick that the best way to accomplish this and not be grossed out at the thought that no one had yet invented sinks, soap, and toilet paper, well, obviously one can imagine.

As civilization grew, there were many more right-handers, so everything was assumed right-handed, dinner tables are set that way even to this day. Even refrigerators and single-door cabinets are built for right-handed folks.

More reasons, maybe, that we'll stay a right handed society for a while:

  • We write left-to-right, enabling right-handed folks to keep the wet ink off of their hand.

  • Pants with only one back pocket? It's on the right side, making it tough on lefties.

  • Polo-shirts and suit jackets make it easy for right-handers and tough on lefties by putting the pocket on the left side.

  • A computer keyboard is essentially designed for right-handed people, beyond the querty layout.

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Founder Aug. 29, 2010 @ 7:13 a.m.

Reply #6 & #7

In many Middle Eastern Country's, the punishment for stealing used to be the cutting off ones hand! Once done, the thief had to make one hand serve both purposes and those around them would not gladly shake their (remaining) hand or eat with them...

And that would also probably preclude everyone that was singlehanded from playing piano unless you happen to be this boy that has no hands: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/08/27/chinese-musician-with-no-_n_696914.html

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David Dodd Aug. 29, 2010 @ 1:28 p.m.

"In many Middle Eastern Country's, the punishment for stealing used to be the cutting off ones hand! Once done, the thief had to make one hand serve both purposes and those around them would not gladly shake their (remaining) hand or eat with them..."

In many Middle Eastern countries, this is still the punishment. The right hand is chopped off. In many Middle Eastern countries, a complete business transaction in public can take place while shaking right hands, and the hands are used to negotiate, pressure applied or released and so on (this is often done while talking about something entirely more pleasant than a business transaction). Also, many staples are eaten from a community bowl without utensils. The loss of the right hand is more than embarrassing, it closes many doors.

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