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Feature: Is Left-Handed Wrong?

Since the dawn of time, there have been a select few who have been singled out as different. To narrow that down a bit, I mean, in this case at least, people who are left-handed. These are folk who make up just a fraction of the human race yet are the culprits behind one of the watch community’s biggest faux-pas: wearing a watch on the right—although many would say wrong—wrist. Who are these left-handed people, and why are they here? Are they wrong? Let’s find out.

Who Are These People?

Our hands, the dextrous collections of bony limbs we use to find purchase on all sorts of things big and small, took 400 million years to grow. The opposable thumb, that emerged around 2.6 million years ago, further improving our ability to get a grip on things—at least, physically.

Seems like a pretty well-refined bout of good old evolution, taking its pick of the bits that work and casting aside the bits that don’t. It’s given us hands on our arms and feet on our legs, such that we may walk about upright and wave to one another. Our faces are at the front and our behinds at the, well, behind, so that we may refute the blasphemy, “Whoever smelt it, dealt it.”

What you don’t see is ten percent of people walking on their hands and knees, or whose smiles are on the backs of their heads. What you do see, however, is ten percent of people who are most at ease using their left hands and that—well that doesn’t make sense. I’ll tell you why.

Panerai was founded in 1860, Florence, Italy

Panerai was founded in 1860, Florence, Italy

Handedness isn’t exclusive to humans; in fact, it appears at the smallest of scales. Molecular handedness, or chirality, is the terminology used to describe a compound with the mirror image of another. One completely harmless molecule can, when handed, be tragically toxic, even though its constituent parts are identical.

But a left-handed human is still a human. They don’t express entirely different properties. Scaling up a bit, we see handedness in animals too, but the spread is about fifty-fifty. If there’s no evolutionary benefit to one over the other, that makes sense. But in humans, only ten percent are left-handed. That’s not a new thing—through bone density, the handedness of humans walking the Earth half a million years ago can also be determined to slant in the same favour, ten percent left-handed. How can this be?

Why Are They Here?

For a long time, handedness was considered to be a preference derived by nurture, that a child just by chance happened to start exploring more with one hand over the other. That lead to the belief that it could be trained out by forcing the use of the right hand in left-handed children—but that’s wrong, in many ways.

The position of the foetus in its mother’s womb can be accurately used to predict a child’s handedness. It’s there, already written in the genes. Except … it’s not, because identical twins who share the same identical genes can both be right-handed, or both be left-handed, like you’d perhaps expect—or they can both be opposites.

So where does it come from? Is it hereditary? As you might expect, parents who are both right-handed are most likely to have a right-handed child, 90% so—but then parents who are both left-handed only have a 25% chance of having a left-handed child. By those odds, left-handedness should have disappeared a long time ago—but yet, it is as present now as it was 500,000 years ago.

Panerai was founded by Giovanni Panerai

Panerai was founded by Giovanni Panerai

In sports where handedness can add a surprise advantage, where both right-handed and left-handed players practice predominantly with other right-handed players, you’ll find a different split: fifty-fifty. This is the competitive advantage, one that gave left handers a benefit in combat, increasing chances of survival. This is known as negative frequency-dependent selection, when the rarity of a trait makes it more valuable—but by that logic, left-handedness should be present in half the population, whereafter its dominance hinders its benefit.

But then there’s the disadvantage in cooperation. In sports where handedness isn’t an advantage, where handed equipment is required, left-handed players make up a scant 4% of the showing. Tools made for a population that is 90% right-handed mean that left-handers are at an immediate disadvantage, pushing the numbers growing from the competitive advantage back down again to 10%. So south paws may not be right—but are they wrong?

Are They Wrong?

The suspicion of left-handedness is, unfortunately, probably not that surprising. Difference tends to lend itself to distrust, and that leads people to conflate abnormal with unnatural. For left and right specifically, however, many cultures either chose to ignore the difference or give some association to male and female instead. Grecian fathers were known to tie off their left—the source of femininity—testicle in order to conceive a boy.

The negative connotation of leftness is understood to have come from Christianity, with the belief that Eve formed from a rib on Adam’s left side, from which came the seed of an association with the weakness and corruption that the story goes on to tell. Added to that, the Day of Judgement is written as a depiction of a shepherd dividing sheep—the righteous—on the right—and goats—the wrongdoers—on the left.

And there it is again. Righteous, right, good, correct. To sit on the right hand of God is to be favoured. The meaning can be derived from the Old English word for “proper, fitting, just”. Take the Old English for left and you get “weak, crooked, foolish”. The Devil is, after all, supposedly left-handed. The result: lefthanded people being burned alive as peddlers of witchcraft. This delineation in language isn’t just unique to the origins of English either—and perhaps it’s within the formation of language that we find our answer.

The Panerai Luminor was first released in 1955

The Panerai Luminor was first released in 1955

Brains, you see, are split into two halves, the left and the right. A long, long while ago, there was no preference for one side over the other, but slowly, as evolution took hold, certain functions have migrated to one side exclusively, concentrated rather than being spread all over. Because the brain is cross-wired, or back-to-front, language is one of those functions found, in right-handers, on the left-hand side a definitive 99% of the time.

So then, do left-handed people have their language centres biased on the right side of the brain? More so than right-handers, yes—but 70% still have theirs on the left-hand side, just like the righties. Here’s where it gets really strange, because the remaining 30% of left-handed people aren’t all using their right-hand brain—11% are using both sides.

To be painfully disappointing, the determiner of left-handedness is a mystery still unsolved. As are the 20% who are left-footed, the 30% who are left-eyed, the 40% who are left-eared. MRI studies are completed only on right-handed subjects for consistency, so there’s nothing that’s been learned there, either. Language itself, however, has moved on, and left-handedness no longer need be equated with wrong or ill doing—even with watches.

Wearing your watch on your right wrist to keep your left—and dominant—hand free to wave and wag and all else unencumbered is no more wrong than the hands on the dial going clockwise or anti-clockwise—it’s just different. It’s a mystery, one that’s caused many a problem over the years, and one that will likely remain so for many more to come. In the meantime, whichever wrist you choose to wear your watch on, don’t judge others for being different.

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