On the One Hand, Actually Both . . .(BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Charles Rousseaux, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

On the one hand, Dr. Chris McManus' book is an engaging, erudite read on handedness, so full of astonishing facts and anecdotes that readers will want to shake his hand. On the other hand, his book occasionally handles technical details with such a heavy hand that readers without knowledge aforehand will find some passages to be, hands down, as confusing as anything else they have ever read.

That said, anyone who has ever wondered about handedness will want to take a look, since handedness is a constant of the human condition, from the first moments of development until the hands are laid to rest. The very molecules that humans are made of show handedness. It permeates practically every aspect the substance and symbolism of human society.

It's not easy to get a handle on it all. For instance, right-handedness so overwhelmingly favored as a positive symbol, even though there's no objective reason that left-handed is bad. Meanwhile, the human heart most commonly found on the left side of the chest cavity, even though there seems no real reason that the right side wouldn't do.

The mysteries come from all sides, and Dr. McManus' book is dedicated to describing and, where possible, to solving them. The first half of the book moves from handedness in social structures - religion, philosophy and language, to handedness in biological structures - molecular and developmental. The rest of book covers handedness in humans - in family inheritance, in brain asymmetry, in cultural differences, in common myths, and in the seeming human need for symmetry.

It would take a book or two to describe, much less answer, any one of those questions, and yet each point is ticked off in fairly fast fashion. Unfortunately, technical material is often condensed with a rough hand. For instance, the chapter on the handedness of molecules (chirality) that humans are made of takes up only 25 pages and includes discussions on the construction of proteins the conservation of parity (a cocktail party topic for Nobel-prize winning physicists), and the makeup of extremophiles (bacteria who like Vin Diesel movies, er, extreme living conditions). The concept of chirality alone covered a chapter in this reviewer's organic chemistry book, and fried his brain like few legal substances.

Which points to another minor problem. The book is liberally sprinkled with diagrams and photos, but while all are illustrative, not all are illuminating. For instance, the complex genetic theory that Mr. McManus uses to describe his own theory of the inheritance of handedness has no accompanying diagram, leaving those individuals who had basic genetics long ago with the left-handed option attempting a paper cross. …