In my early teens at church, some older youth were talking about a tabloid article which purported that all lefthanders were from outer space. This led the preacher’s southpaw son to say into the fountain pen he was holding, “They’ve discovered us, Master.”
Funny as that impromptu line was, it obscured the fact that being a lefthander in church just a few hundred years before that would have been no laughing matter. Just how long the church considers something evil will vary by sin. Gays and evolution have sat near the top of this Luciferian list for more than a century. Meanwhile, excoriations of Catholics and dancing have moved to the fringe of Christianity. And congregations who consider mixed fabrics and lefties to be Satanic spawn are virtually extinct.
While southpaws were traditionally reviled in most societies, there have been exceptions. Ancient Andeans thought lefthanders were bestowed with magical and healing properties. Also offering left-handed compliments were Greeks and Celts, the latter associating them with femininity and, therefore, the continuation of life. Jews and Christians likewise tied left-handedness to womanhood, but given the misogyny prevalent in those religions, adherents considered this a detrimental trait. Believers viewed lefties like they did their womenfolk: Inferior, weak, and destined for subservience.
In the book of Matthew, souls gather at check-in to see where their eternal reservations have been made and are told, “He shall say unto them on the left hand, depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” While the malefactors are tossed into a burning lake, Jesus sits at God’s right hand. With these images in mind, more than a few left hands were bruised by a nun’s ruler and it was common fairly deep into the 20th Century for schools to forcibly retrain lefthanders to use the correct side.
Christianity claimed no monopoly on this southpaw shaming. Even today, many Muslims and Hindus use their right hand for honorable tasks such as greeting friends, signing contracts, and accepting gifts. Meanwhile, the lowly left is reserved for actions considered unclean. These habits grew from sanitation issues. Since the right served as the dominant hand for 90 percent of the population, persons used it when eating, handling food, and interacting with others. The left hand, meanwhile, was used for hygienic activities. These customs were uniform with no consideration of an individual’s dominant hand so the left came to be considered unclean.
And these were minor annoyances compared to how other cultures dealt with left-handedness. Some 19th Century Zulu tribes scalded youngsters’ left hands so they would no longer be of use. Perpetrators of the Spanish Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials went one worse, sometimes executing persons for using the wrong hand.
Tired of religion having all the fun out in left field, pseudoscientists got in on the act. Downplaying the morally degenerate angle, they instead considered lefties to be a biological mistake. In the early 1900s, criminologist pioneer Cesare Lombroso offered precisely that take with writings that would make a Klansman proud. Switching the blame from Beelzebub to the brain, Lombroso insisted that “as man advances in civilization and culture, he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to…women and savage races.” Lombroso further associated left-handedness with the primitive and the barbaric, while considering right-handers to be civilized and peaceful.
Around the same time, a McClure’s article informed readers than southpaws were “more common among the lower strata, negroes, and savages.” If desiring a viewpoint even more, um, right wing, consider what Austrian physician and psychologist Wilhelm Stekel wrote in 1911: “The right-hand path always signifies the way to righteousness, the left-hand the path to crime. Thus the left may signify homosexuality, incest, and perversion, while the right signifies marriage.”
This bigotry faded over the next few decades, though it lingered in some quarters. In the 1970s, psychologist Theodore Blau was still calling left-handed children sinister, academically suspect, and prone to mental illness. And just three years ago, an Oklahoma preschool teacher forced a 4-year old southpaw to use his right hand. When pressed for an explanation, the teacher referenced a publication that branded lefthanders evil, unlucky, and sinister. She also made note of Satan’s supposed southpaw status.
One of the few nuggets of accuracy in all this is that nine out of 10 humans are left-handed. And this biological determination runs very deep. In a Discover article, retired University of Kansas anthropologist David Frayer discussed how he deduced that 1.8 million years ago, Neanderthals had the same 9-to-1 preference.
He observed a series of ridges on the outer surfaces of Neanderthals’ upper front teeth. As to how this indicated hand preference, the article explained: “One direction of diagonal marks, either from upper right to lower left or upper left to lower right, would dominate. Individuals working with tough, fibrous material could have held it between their teeth and one hand, then used an edged stone tool to saw off a small piece with the other hand.” These observations showed the 9-to-1 ratio.
As to why it was happening even way back then, one theory holds that the brain’s hemispheres split tasks for purposes of efficiency and this division of labor included favoring the right hand for most manual activities. That would explain why most persons are right-handed, but what answer is there for the relative few who become lefties?
Neuropsychologist Chris McManus theorizes that lefties result from a mutation that began occurring around 60,000 years ago. This mutation does not precisely mandate left-handedness, but it cancels the bias for the right and gives those who inherit it a 50-50 chance of being left-handed. That clears up how a set of identical twins can include a righty and a lefty. And what McManus and Frayer have discovered likely explains why lefties are among us without needing to resort to demons, defects, or alien preacher children.