When I was a kid growing up, I thought being left-handed made me special. I couldn’t have said how I was special. In most things I was an ordinary kid of the time. I played sports adequately, but I was no star. I played in school marching bands, again adequately, but I was no Louis Armstrong. I did enough of my schoolwork to be shoved along from grade to grade, but I was never going to be valedictorian. But it seemed to me that I was special because I was left-handed. I’ve recently looked into the whole matter of handedness a bit. It turns out that experts who have studied the matter have concluded that most lefties see themselves as special, for better or worse.
And in fact, there are a considerable numbers of ways in which it is for the worse. It is often claimed that lefties have certain advantages as pitchers and batters. And it is true that left-handed batters are a couple of steps closer to first base than righties, which sometimes enables them to beat out a ground ball that righties can’t. But lefties can’t play half the positions in the field—second base, third base, shortstop, and catcher. Again, it is supposed that lefties have an advantage at tennis. But in fact, that is only because inexperienced players forget that the lefty’s forehand is where his backhand ought to be. Experienced players have no trouble adjusting.
But whatever advantages lefties may have in sports they are hindered in all sorts of ways that righties never think about. For example, many if not most musical instruments must be played right-handed. The trombone can be played either way, but it is very difficult to play the trumpet left-handed. The same is true of clarinets, saxophones, and other woodwinds—there is only one way to play them. This is also true of power tools: a hand drill can be used either way, but try using a power saw, much less a chain saw, backwards. For yet one more, I have owned a twenty-two rifle since I was twelve years old, and during my army stint fired thirty and fifty caliber weapons of various sorts. They are all designed so that the hot shell is ejected straight into the face of the left-handed shooter. They have to be used right-handed.
And the handicap continues into the most mundane of matters: Try opening your fly, or turning the pages of a book with your left hand.
How did this strange dichotomy come about? It is generally believed that while righties are “left-brained”, lefties tend to use both sides of the brain, which, according to one source, “could allow them to visualize problems more broadly and with more complexity”. This is not to say that lefties are “smarter”, but that they are better at certain intellectual tasks than righties. The same source says that “a higher percentage of mathematicians and scientists are left-handed, and the same is true for artists. However, lefties seem to be more likely to suffer from schizophrenia, autism, and bi-polar disorder.”
Nonetheless, there are certain oddities in the historical record of left-handedness. For one, in recent decades a startling number of American presidents have been left-handed—Ford, Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton. Al Gore is left-handed, and so are other would-be presidents such as Bill Bradley, Bob Dole, and Michael Bloomberg. Says one researcher, “The chance is less than one in a thousand” that this is a statistical accident.
Yet even as recently as when I was a boy, it was generally believed, in the West in any case, that natural lefties should be forced to become righties. Fortunately for me, my parents left me alone. But given that the disadvantages of being left-hand have, over the ages, out-weighed the advantages—after all, in Robin Hood’s day it didn’t matter that lefties were closer to first base while batting—left-handedness ought to have disappeared in the ordinary course of evolution. But so far as we can judge, there have always been roughly ten percent of lefties in the population. There must be some advantages for a social group to have some lefties around, but what they are, nobody knows.
—James Lincoln Collier