Left Out

"Although the percentage of left-handed people among those over age 60 is lower than in the rest of the population, there is no indication that left-handedness leads to an early demise." —Nancy Marie Brown

Well now, that's a relief. Sort of. Not that I had been looking over my shoulder, exactly. In fact, I had been blissfully unaware of any danger. Since childhood, I had rarely thought of being left-handed as anything but a sign of superiority.

Sure, I knew the history: Anti-lefty slurs are part of the language. We are "sinister," not "adroit." "Gauche," as opposed to "dextrous." We're bad luck, out to lunch, in cahoots with the Devil, and just plain odd. We're distinctly in the minority (about 10 percent of the overall population), and as a result every culture has either tried to suppress us (Japan and Saudi Arabia) or to demoralize us with silly nicknames ("coochy-pawed," "gawky-handed," "keeky-fisted," "scrammy," and "kitty-wesy," to start with the English).

handprint

What can I say? Envy makes people crazy. I mean look at the record: We have Da Vinci, Picasso, Michelangelo, and Joan of Arc. You guys have Britney Spears, Norman Rockwell, and Hitler. Shall I go on?

I had heard the sad stories, too. In penmanship classes of my parents' era, left-handedness was a condition to be cured. King George VI of England, a contemporary of my grandfather, is said to have developed a debilitating stammer as a result of having his wires thus crossed. I myself had a brief run-in with a second-grade teacher determined to straighten my "hook," the bent-wrist style that southpaws favor. We dueled for some weeks. (I broke her, finally, by writing progressively smaller until my words, and her eyesight, threatened to disappear altogether.)

But I had forgotten all that. As for the other inconveniences of being left, I had all but forgotten them too. Scissors I simply thought of as awkward devices. Ditto for can openers. Power tools I hadn't much use for anyway. And I had grown accustomed to not being able to see the yellow happy face on the front of my right-handed coffee mug.

If anything, it was somehow a relief to me that things didn't fit me exactly. It helped my sense of humor. I was perfectly content, in other words, to live with my disadvantage.

That was before this early-demise talk.

There is no indication that left-handedness leads to an early demise, the press release said. But the fact that I hadn't even been aware that my long-term survival was in question threw me into a fit of retroactive anxiety. I immediately did some reconnaissance with my (right-handed) computer mouse. Turns out there's been a fair amount of work done on handedness: On why it occurs in the first place. It isn't really clear. Handedness has long been thought to be primarily a learned trait, but a recent study claims to have identified the gene responsible.

On whether it occurs in other species. A qualified yes. Handedness or paw preference occurs in cats, rats, and monkeys— and, according to a 1996 study, in Bufo bufo, the European toad—but not nearly as frequently as in humans.

And yes, On its consequences. Here we are faced with the mystery of the disappearing southpaws. Demographics show that 13 percent of American 20-year-olds are left-handed. By age 50, that number drops to five percent. At 80, the lefties practically fall off the chart: we're at less than one percent.

Where did everybody go? According to a highly publicized 1991 report, they died in accidents, casualties of their own clumsiness in a world designed without regard for their needs. No laughing matter: The average life-expectancy of left-handers, according to this study, is fully nine years less than that of right-handers.

Clare Porac, fortunately, would beg to differ. Porac, a professor of psychology at Penn State Erie, does not dispute the numbers, really. What she suggests, though—after reviewing studies of handedness done since 1980 and then completing her own study of 1,200 elderly people—is that there are other, less frightening reasons for the apparent drop-off.

The first seems obvious: The relative absence of very old left-handers reflects the heavy pressure back then to change over, something which was no longer a factor by the dawn of the Baby Boom. Also, since women tend to live longer anyway, and more women than men report having switched hands those many years ago, gender may play into the deficit.

In the likely event that it does, Porac admits, that would still leave the numbers too low. But she plausibly cites two more possible factors. One is that we lefties just get tired of fighting the system. We conform, at the last, from sheer exhaustion. The other, Porac says, is that some kind of late developmental biology kicks in, quietly overruling the will.

I can almost feel it: The urge to see that yellow happy face becomes impossible to resist.

Last Updated May 01, 2001