As Evidence Grows of Southpaw Supremacy, It's Time to Ask: Have We Reached Peak Left-Handedness?

By Smith, Ed | New Statesman (1996), December 8, 2017 | Go to article overview

As Evidence Grows of Southpaw Supremacy, It's Time to Ask: Have We Reached Peak Left-Handedness?


Smith, Ed, New Statesman (1996)


Among persecuted minorities, left-handers stand out as distinctly stoic. They have been hounded by historic prejudice. The physical manifestations of right-hand bullying--the right-handed school desk and inkwell, the beatings given to innocent lefties whose handwriting sloped the "wrong" way, the psychological suffering that displaced left-handers suffered --all this is only part of the injustice.

The allegorical stigma runs even deeper. The Protestant world view had a special term for Catholics: "left-footers". If lefties weren't heretics, they were Satanists. In medieval woodcuts, the devil baptised his followers with his left hand.

Apart from the occasional counter-example --such as "left field", which provides this column with a title--words associated with the left usually come with health warnings. (Disclosure: I write with my left hand, though I was a right-handed batsman.)

When my wife and I named our son Dexter, my university tutor asked if, for the sake of consistency, we planned to name a second child Sinister. In a cowardly move, we ignored the advice. For only when little Sinisters and Sinistras gambol happily around the playground can we say that the struggle for justice by left-handers in a right-leaning world is complete.

For left-handed readers--estimated at just over ten per cent of the population--I bring mixed news. The good news is that in certain professions left-handedness brings major benefits. The bad news, however, is that as evidence grows of current left-handed supremacy, it will rebound against lefties in the future. A forlorn possibility looms: are we witnessing "peak left-handedness"?

It has long been known that left-handedness offers a competitive advantage in some professional sports. But the extent is uneven across different sports. According to Florian Loffing, from the University of Oldenburg in Germany, left-handedness is most useful in sports that demand quick reaction times. That's why leftie over-representation is highest in sports such as baseball, cricket and table tennis. For this reason, the naturally right-handed Rafael Nadal was forced by his uncle to play left-handed.

I can vouch for the awkwardness of competing against left-handers. My most challenging moments when batting came against left-arm swing bowlers (Wasim Akram was the best of the lot). Almost all right-handed batsmen say the same thing.

Historically, this imbalance may have caused an evolutionary advantage. Left-handedness is partly heritable. Loffing suggests that the tactical advantages enjoyed by our left-handed ancestors, which increased their chances of winning fights with right-handed enemies, promoted "the maintenance of left-handedness itself".

But left-handers should look away now. In sport, left-handers cannot ascend forever, for several connected reasons. The first is obvious. Unusualness cannot be expanded indefinitely. …

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