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The human form has a tremendous preference for symmetry. Just about everything we have comes in pairs. This is not a matter of redundancy so much as it is of balance. Our left foot, after all, is not extra; it is the required other half for standard locomotion. And yet not all sides are equal. In the human anatomy, which is otherwise dominated by duplication, there is the curious anomaly of handedness. In almost every case one hand works much better than the other. � Nobody really knows why. Handedness is probably a matter of genetics, although some researchers say birth trauma could be a factor. But, for whatever reason, 90% of almost every population, through almost every era, has been righthanded. Because it is man's instinct to punish the minority--to extinction, if possible--it is an evolutionary miracle that lefthanders have held steady at 10%, surviving insults of language and industrial design to lead somewhat normal, although (as we will learn) shortened, lives. Despite the relentless bias, institutionalized to the point where it is not really safe for lefthanders to operate power tools of any kind, they have become great artists, statesmen, magazine writers and, most of all, athletes.
As to why lefthanders should thrive in this last, peculiar arena of life, again, it is a mystery. Through the ages, all activity has been organized according to the survival of the dextral (as opposed to the sinistral). Why were medieval staircases built to ascend in a clockwise spiral? To give a righthander an advantage against attackers coming up the stairs. It's the same in sports: When there's a choice in the matter, games are designed with the righthander in mind. An example: The appropriate-sided hitter is allowed to face first base, as he would be normally inclined. The resulting counterclockwise flow of the game, dictated by this initial prejudice, is further advantageous to the similarly appropriate-sided fielders, who are now allowed a natural throwing motion toward first. That's baseball.
And yet there are more lefties in baseball than their representation in the general population would suggest--27% of all pitchers since 1900 have been lefties; 14% of position players in that span have been lefthanded throwers, despite the fact that few lefties play catcher, second base, short or third. Indeed, southpaws have not been excluded from the game but have thrived in it instead. The Hall of Fame is full of them.
In sports that are more lateral-neutral--games like golf, football and basketball--it is somewhat more difficult to regulate against the lefthander. But where rules can't be made to work toward his oppression, other discriminations can. Perhaps it is through the reduced availability of equipment (though now possible to shop for lefthanded golf clubs, it's still hard to get lefthanded fishing reels) or just the powerful sway of folklore (one of Steve Young's coaches told him he would not contribute to the heresy of a lefthanded quarterback). Whatever. The overall effect is one of discouragement.
If you believe Stanley Coren, a University of British Columbia psychology professor and author of The Left-Hander Syndrome, our minority subject is so poorly adapted to life on this earth that it really is a marvel he has so stubbornly persisted. It's Coren's theory that roughly half of all southpaws are that way as the result of birth stress or trauma. And that as a group they tend more toward suicide, alcoholism, bed-wetting, psychosis and immune diseases than their righthanded brethren. To Coren, lefthandedness is basically a "marker" for a festive smorgasbord of pathologies.
"Plus," he points out, "there is that major concern with longevity." According to his controversial study, a lefthander can expect about nine fewer years of life than a righthander can. In other words not only is the food bad, but the portions are absurdly small.
But look around at these brave lefthanders, doomed not only to the massive inconveniences thrown up by conniving righthanders but also to wet sheets, the DTs and early graves. Look how plucky they are! They are susceptible to ulcerative colitis and yet still go out for the team. Just recently: Johan Santana wins the Cy Young, Matt Leinart the Heisman Trophy, Barry Bonds the MVP, Phil Mickelson the Masters, Winky Wright the light middleweight championship, Steve Young entry into the Hall of Fame. Manu Ginobili is an Olympic gold medalist and a lefthanded stalwart for the San Antonio Spurs. Not too shabby for a group that's had to battle predispositions to mental retardation and eczema.
Coren, who was assailed when his findings were published more than a decade ago (some researchers questioned his data, while many lefties simply didn't like his conclusions), stands by them today and cites additional data that buttress his original research. "It's all been verified," he says. But, although he delved into sports and handedness (his ability to easily sift through baseball rosters for handed-mortality relationships provided him his first longevity results), he can't account for, and only grudgingly acknowledges, what seems to be a disproportionate success rate among lefthanded athletes. "In certain sports--combat sports like judo, boxing and fencing, where arms are flying from slightly different angles--the lefthander does better," he says. "In certain other sports it's just folklore."
He is not keen on the idea that lefthanders, who are roughed up from birth on, are, as an imperative of survival in a dextral world, more neurologically adaptive than righthanders. You might think that southpaws, who must always fight the system, have become opportunistic, overly creative and resourceful. But Coren is not generous to southpaws in this regard either and believes a lot of the right-brain/left-brain talk is so much hooey. Dr. Albert Galaburda, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, sort of agrees. He says distinctions between the language-heavy left brain and the spatially oriented right are now considered blurry. "We're finding that brains are more bilateral than we thought," he says. Still, isn't there some wiring in there that might explain a lefty's resilience?
"Well," says Coren, "I have found that an unusually high number of graphic artists and architects are lefthanded, and more chess masters than there should be." This is some good news but hardly explains the lefty's survival. Would you say they're more creative? "In strongly language-oriented areas they're underrepresented. If you look--and the data is hard to find--among book authors, lefthanders are underrepresented." Coren, a righthander, has written eight books himself (six about dogs alone), so he probably single-handedly skews his own data. But that's just book authors, correct? "Journalists, too. Not so good."