August 24, 2023

Rector’s eNews – 23 August 2023

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What do the following have in common: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Isaac Newton, Napoleon Bonaparte, Beethoven, Nietzsche, Henry Ford, Mahatma Gandhi, Charlie Chaplin, Alan Turing, Jimi Hendrix, Paul McCartney, Bill Gates, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe? Very few will know that the factor which binds them together is their left-handedness. Left-handers have a disproportionate presence in the history of the world despite the fact that they have been discriminated against through the ages. Discrimination against them has existed in, for example, their being burnt as witches. The connotations associated with the term left may be derogatory: for example, in Latin, the word for left is sinister – a term from which our English word is derived. The word for right is dexter, on the other hand, from which the word dextrous comes. It was often seen as “odd” to be left-handed and, especially in the Nineteenth Century, boys and girls were often forced to write with their right hands.

About 11% of males and 9% of females in the world are left-handed or use their left hand in preference to their right for performing most tasks. This is fairly consistent across history and cultures though in Japan, for example, discrimination against the left-hander has meant that only 5% of the population is reported to be left-handed. There are also a number of people who are ambidextrous and use both left and right hands for different tasks, depending on precisely what the task is and their particular preference.

In general terms we are aware that the left side of the brain fuels the logic which makes for the good accountant and is evident in right-handedness and the right side of the brain fuels the creativity which is evident in left-handedness, though naturally this is over-simplistic and many left-handers are good accountants.

Left-handers tend to be nature’s risk-takers, according to Ed Wright in A Left-Handed History of the World. This is, perhaps, why they have such a high presence in the history of the world’s achievers.

One theory that has arisen to explain the number of left-handers is that their evolutionary survival has been the result of the advantage of surprise in hand-to-hand combat. Put simply, most people expect to be attacked with the right hand and are not as competent in defending themselves against the left. A very high proportion of the top fencers in the world are left-handed. This phenomenon may explain the advantage that, for example, left-handed tennis players have – the way they play and the spin on the ball is simply different from right-handers.

What is of interest to me is the disproportionate presence of left-handed players in sports such as cricket. Many cricket sides have up to 30-40% of the team (and certainly above 10%) comprising left-handers. Left-hand bowlers are able to vary an attack with a different line and left-handed batsmen force opposition bowlers to do something different. So a left-handed player may have an advantage over a right-handed player when it comes to team selection. It is also thought that left-handers often thrive in sports such as cross-country away from the more traditional team sports, as left-handers can apparently be different or prefer more solitude than right-handers.

The idea of left-handers adopting a different approach can be seen in the military astuteness of people like Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte, both left-handed military geniuses who out-manoeuvred the opposition by unexpected military strategies, in the inventiveness of Alan Turing, or Paul McCartney or in the ability to see an alternative way in politics such as Gandhi did. Possessing enhanced visual and spatial faculties can be an asset in the visual arts (eg. Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael), in industrial design (eg. Henry Ford) and in sports such as tennis (eg. Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe and many others).

Chris McManus in his book, Right Hand, Left Hand, argues that the brains of left-handers have a built in tendency to be different which is why left-handers are leaders of change and disturb the status quo.

So where does this leave the boy who, before the advent of the laptop, smudged his writing and was told that he was careless and messy? Do it again, his teacher would say. To what extent did he become an agent of change? I suspect that he became more confident expressing himself orally as is the case in the eloquence of Barack Obama or David Cameron or in advancing the nature of music such as in Beethoven or Jimi Hendrix. But the mystery remains for me as to why there are so few left-handed golfers?

I will return to the theme of left-handedness next week.

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