Book Examines Science in a Left-Handed Way

Detail of the cover of David Wolman's book 'A Left-Hand Turn Around the World'

hide captionTen-percent of the world is left-handed.

Da Capo Press

David Wolman's new book, A Left Hand Turn Around the World, explores the scientific factors that lead to 10 percent of the human race being left-handed. Wolman tells Madeleine Brand about the book.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

We all have problems, but an estimated 10 percent of the world's population also has to deal with the indignities of scissors that don't cut, baseball mitts that don't fit and desks that are uncomfortable. These people are lefties. They are the subject of a new book, "A Left-Hand Turn Around the World." Author David Wolman spoke with my colleague, Madeleine Brand.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

I have a confession. I'm one of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAVID WOLMAN (Author, "A Left-Hand Turn Around the World"): Welcome to the club.

BRAND: Thank you. But you make that point in the book that it's sort of like, I mean, a secret left-handed handshake; that people who notice other people who are left-handed kind of, you know, have a sense of solidarity.

Mr. WOLMAN: You know, it's little, of course, but it is there. And I wouldn't have--as of yet in our conversation, I wouldn't have anything else to bond with you over. So it's something that I definitely take pride in.

BRAND: Well, why does the world hate us?

Mr. WOLMAN: Well, I think they're--you know, it's really hard to find a calendar peg in history as to when this sort of anti-left sentiment was born. In fact, it does go back much further than the Bible, for example, when God is doing all sorts of nice things with the right hand or either nothing or not-so-nice things with the left hand. But more ancient civilizations also seemed to have had signs of anti-lefty attitude. My personal view is that it's probably just humanity's tendency to look down on something that is unfamiliar.

BRAND: Right, but not only look down but try to stamp it out and try to ascribe all sorts of, as you point out in the book, inferior capabilities with left-handed people.

Mr. WOLMAN: Right. So a lot of the research into this area of handedness or laterality for a long time was really a quest, even if no one said so outright, to figure out, `Well, what are the deficits among left-handers 'cause there have to be some with this minority group? So let's go see if lefties are more often dyslexic or more often stuttering or more often suffering from allergies or dying earlier.' And the overarching theme for all of that research is this sort of inconclusive mess, and it's probably--it really hasn't bore out that lefties are lesser in any way, which, on the one hand, sort of strikes a commonsense chord, but on the other hand it's nice to see that research will correct itself.

BRAND: Well, I'm wondering, what is the purpose, evolutionarily speaking or biologically speaking, for left-handedness?

Mr. WOLMAN: Well, this is the trick, and this was a big part of the quest that I understood because there has to be a reason why left-handedness still exists or, more specifically, why left-handers haven't been bred out of the population. And the simplest answer is that there must be some sort of evolutionary advantage, not to being left-handed--it's not to imply that lefties are superior or better or smarter or more creative kind of thing. But in a subtler or more nuanced sense, there must be a benefit to the species as a whole and--when it comes to brain organization and diversity of brain organization.

BRAND: You actually traveled around the world in search of your various questions about being a lefty and left-handedness, and you didn't just talk to scientists. You talked to all manner of people, including palm readers. What did they find when they look at your palm?

Mr. WOLMAN: Apparently I've been left-handed for at least three lives now, so that's exciting.

BRAND: Nice to know you're consistent.

Mr. WOLMAN: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: So, in the end, what do you find? We are more alike than we are different, and the differences we may have we don't really understand?

Mr. WOLMAN: Well, one of the things that was most profound, I think, was learning that, you know, this comes down to brain organization. And lefty brains do differ in seriously interesting ways from right-handers' brains. But of handedness, I think it would certainly be a stretch to say, you know, left-handedness makes you like this--you know, X, Y and Z, and right-handedness makes you like this--A, B and C. And that probably wouldn't fly. I think people are just too interesting and too dynamic and too complicated for that.

BRAND: Although we do in general play a mean game of tennis.

Mr. WOLMAN: Exactly, exactly. And that's when I think being left-handed is most fun--in those areas where we--the fact that we are unfamiliar stands out a little bit. And our opponent in a game of tennis is sort of tangled up for a little while because they are expecting the ball to spin a different way or the forehand to bear from the other side of the court or something like that. And, you know, that's when I sort of, you know, hold my fist in the air and I'm, you know, `Go, McEnroe,' or, `Go, Rocky,' or something like that.

BRAND: `Go, Martina.'

Mr. WOLMAN: `Go, Martina.' Oh, yeah, of course, of course, Martina.

BRAND: David Wolman is a fellow lefty and the author of a new book, "A Left-Hand Turn Around the World." Thank you very much.

Mr. WOLMAN: Thanks so much for having me.

CHADWICK: And that interview by my left-handed colleague Madeleine Brand.

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