Rik Smits, Science writer
Monday, 14 May 2018 at 14:00 in the Large Operon, EMBL Heidelberg
Rik Smits, Science writer
Why is left-handedness ubiquitous and constant in space and time?
The issue of handedness is riddled with mystery. For one thing, it is not as clear as most people think what it really means for someone to be right- or left-handed. And why should there be both left- and right-handers at all? Furthermore, what could be the evolutionary advantage of having a left-handed fraction in a predominantly right-handed population, and why is there only one left-hander for every nine right-handers?
Another puzzling phenomenon is the association of left-handedness with a wide range of mental as well as physical and even cultural afflictions. It has long been noted that almost any group suffering from some negative trait, ranging from mild forms of brain damage to bizarre things like encarceration and even smoking, is likely to have a slightly above-average number of lefthanders in its ranks. On the other hand, virtually no group of randomly selected lefthanders can be correlated with any of these traits.
But the greatest conundrum of all is the ubiquity and stability of left-handedness. All communities, however isolated, seem to have around 10% lefthanders, and this seems to have been so ever since hominids began making tools. We know there is a hereditary factor involved, but for classical Darwinism, left-handedness is a tough nut to crack, all the more so in view of its the doubtful evolutionary value. As it turns out, however, there are other, positively detrimental traits which show similar characteristics, and there might be a more or less common explanation for their extraordinary resilience.
Rik Smits (The Hague, 1953) studied English and General Linguistics, and after a spate as a teacher of English taught theoretical linguistics at the Universities of Amsterdam, Tilburg and Leiden for some ten years. He received a PhD in 1989 (Eurogrammar I, the Relative and Cleft Constructions of the Germanic and Romance Languages, Foris/De Gruyter).
After that, he drifted into writing as an author and science journalist, mainly on linguistics, for a wide range of Dutch news papers and magazines, by and by broadening out into areas like ict, the internet and new media, civil and human rights issues, handedness (The Puzzle of Left-handedness, Reaktion 2012) and the origins of language (Dawn: The Origins of Language and the Modern Human Mind, Transaction Books 2016) – both biological properties that seem to be unique to mankind as well as difficult to account for in Darwinistic terms. He is currently finishing The Art of Verbal Warfare, a book on how to get your way by verbal means, from magic and rituals through shouting matches and intimidation to propaganda and misinformation.