A Left-Handed History of the World
A fascinating new book explores the question of why such a high number of left-handed people feature in influential moments throughout history. In "A Left-Handed History of the World" author Ed Wright explains the secret of lefty success through fascinating case studies of notable left-handers from ancient to modern times.
Highlighting "leftie traits" that would have contributed to their success, this beautifully illustrated book profiles a host of famous left-handers from Julius Caesar and Isaac Newton to Paul McCartney and Bill Gates and forms an impressive list of successful and influential sinistrals, that makes fascinating reading for left and right handers alike.
If you have an interest in famous left-handers, this book is for you.
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Author Ed Wright's review of his book
Click here to listen to an audio of Ed Wright talking through his review
What would the world would have been like if its great lefties had never lived? Imagine the Italian renaissance without Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, science without Isaac Newton and Marie Curie, American enterprise without Henry Ford and Bill Gates, baseball without the Babe, the Australian cricket team without Langer, Hayden, Hussey, and Gilchrist. The art of war without Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.
While left-handers are around ten per cent of the population, they have a disproportionate significance in human history. You might expect them to be celebrated as a source of special gifts and insights. Yet throughout history, they've been burned as witches or refused as marriage partners. Chilli has been rubbed into their natural hands, or they've been tied behind backs when they tried to write.
|Prejudice against the left-hander runs deep. The proto-Indo-European language, spoken before 3000BC, and from which languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin as well as most European languages are derived, had a word for right, but not for left, because of the taboos associated with that side of the body. When languages developed a word for left, the connotations weren't flattering. In Latin, the word for left is sinister, from which our word "sinister" is derived, while the word for right is dexter from which we get dextrous. In Greek, skaios means both left-handed and ill-omened or awkward. In Hindi, following the proto-Indo European, the word for left-hand is Ulta Haanth, which simply means the wrong hand. In French, it is gauche, which has crossed over into English with the meaning of clumsy. The word for right in French is droit which also means law. In German, it's worse: recht means right-handed, the law and also correct, while links means both left-handed and weak. In English, people are right and have rights, while others are left behind. The etymology of "left" is from the Friesian luf meaning weak and worthless. It's no wonder then that left-handers are more likely that their right-handed brethren to be dyslexic.
Scientists have argued that left-handedness is caused by the exposure of the foetus to excess testosterone in the womb. Does this explain the imbalance? It does help the argument that left-handers are nature's risk-takers. It might be the physical risk of battle, or the risks can be intellectual as in the case of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who found that when he looked into the abyss of meaning, it looked back into him.
You may have heard the expression "Only left-handers are in their right minds." This is because the left-side of the body is controlled by the right-side of the brain. In neurological terms left-handers tend to be what is termed right-hemisphere dominant. Studies have shown that the right and left hemispheres of the brain perform different cognitive functions.
||The right hemisphere, for instance, has primary responsibility for managing the visual and spatial aspects of sensory perception. Architecture, for instance, is a profession renowned for having a large number of left-handers. Having enhanced visual and spatial faculties can be an asset in fields ranging from the visual arts (Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael), industrial design (Henry Ford), sports (Babe Ruth, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe), or on the battlefield (Napoleon, for instance, had an amazing ability to visualize maps). This faculty is also connected to the ability for abstract visualization that often generates mathematical genius. Another link often conjectured is one between mathematical thought and music. While the minds of right-handers tend to be wired the same, in left-handers there is more variability, more risk, greater uniqueness, perhaps justifying the folk wisdom that left-handers are more likely to be geniuses, but also more likely to be morons.
All other members of the primate family are about fifty-fifty when it comes to handedness. But why? One theory argues that left-handers have ensured their evolutionary survival by having 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 attack from the left.
This theory might explain the disproportionate presence of left-handed players in sports such as tennis, baseball and cricket. The angles are different which makes the play of a left-hander more difficult to predict. The left-hander's ability to surprise may well extend to their intellectual properties. The military careers of lefties like Alexander the Great or Napoleon profited from their ability to outwit the enemy through surprising strategies on the battlefield. As the philosopher Walter Benjamin once said "All the decisive blows are struck left-handed."
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