Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms and Cultures

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A labor of love and enthusiasm as well as deep scientific knowledge, Right Hand, Left Hand takes the reader on a trip through history, around the world, and into the cosmos, to explore the place of handedness in nature and culture. Chris McManus considers evidence from anthropology, particle physics, the history of medicine, and the notebooks of Leonardo to answer questions like: Why are most people right-handed? Are left-handed people cognitively different from right-handers? Why is the heart almost always on the left side of the body? Why does European writing go from left to right, while Arabic and Hebrew go from right to left? Why do tornadoes spin counter-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere? And how do we know that Jack the Ripper was left-handed?

McManus reminds readers that distinctions between right and left have been profoundly meaningful--imbued with moral and religious meaning--in societies throughout history, and suggests that our preoccupation with laterality may originate in our asymmetric bodies, which emerged from 550 million years of asymmetric vertebrate evolution, and may even be linked to the asymmetric structure of matter. With speculations embedded in science, Right Hand, Left Hand offers entertainment and new insight to scientists and general readers alike.

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Editorial Reviews

Joseph Hellige
Right Hand, Left Hand is the product of sound and creative scholarship, ingeniously weaving historical events and anecdotes into scientific writing for an engaging and informative read. It's a rare and delightful book: a combination of excellent scholarship and clear writing that has as much to offer the general reader as the scholar in the field of behavioral asymmetry and neuroscience.
The Spectator - Robert Macfarlane
Chris McManus, a professor of psychology in London, probably knows more about asymmetry, lateralism, and 'handedness' than anyone else in the world. He has been researching these subjects for 30 years, and Right Hand, Left Hand is the result of that career's worth of work. It is a triumph of a book. Limpidly written, dryly witty and extraordinarily wide reaching, this is surely the most inclusive and erudite popular account of asymmetry yet produced. McManus is as happy talking about Kant's theories of spatial relativism or Lewis Carroll as he is discussing DNA or the ontogeny of the flatfish...Among the dozens of questions McManus tackles are why mirrors reflect left-right but not up-down, why clocks go clockwise...and why the male testicles are 'unbalanced.' Each chapter opens with an apparently simple question of this sort, and then opens out into much broader meditations on the origins and manifestations of lateralism...McManus's book...has centralized in an extremely elegant and ordered fashion pretty much everything you might want to know about asymmetry.
Nature - William D. Hopkins
The scope and range of scientific disciplines now investigating laterality is the subject of this wonderful book by Chris McManus. Although its title implies that the focus is on handedness, don't be misled...The range of topics that it covers is far-reaching, and readers from a wide range of disciplines including physics, biology, chemistry, neuroscience and psychology will all find some aspects of the book intriguing.
Boston Globe - Emily Nussbaum
[McManus] has assembled more than a simple pile of trivia. Instead, he has developed (in his lively, chatter-box, detail-obsessed way) nothing less than a key to all mythologies...The book itself marshals lore from every possible discipline, from physics to philosophy, politics to semantics, with some stops in mathematics and chemistry...[A] useful corrective to the popular science notion that symmetry trumps all.
New York Times - Edward Rothstein
[A] remarkable new book...with graceful and lucid prose, [McManus] outlines his theory of right-and left-handedness. Along the way there is also much exotica: Australian drug addicts licking toad skins, the driving customs of Iceland, the twists of twine in a prehistoric arrow, Charlie Chaplin's left-handed cello and van Gogh's reversed lithograph of left-handed potato eaters.
Washington Times - Charles Rousseaux
An engaging, erudite read on handedness, so full of astonishing facts and anecdotes that readers will want to shake his hand...Anyone who has ever wondered about handedness will want to take a look...[McManus] handles the span of his subject with a dexterous hand.
Choice - C. S. McCoy
McManus examines the effect that being either right-handed or left-handed has on our lives, our culture, and our language. He explores what it is like being left-handed in a right-handed world, analyzes cerebral specialization and its links to social problems, and tries to correct some of the erroneous thinking and general misconceptions that surround left-handedness...McManus skillfully merges cultural history and scientific discovery to explain the concepts of symmetry, asymmetry, cerebral specialization, hemisphere dominance, and right/ left symbolism...McManus presents an informative, humorous blend of scientific, technical information with cultural, linguistic information...Highly recommended.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674016132
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/23/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 990,563
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris McManus is Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at University College London, and co-editor of the Cambridge Handbook of Psychology, Health, and Medicine and the journal Laterality.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures
List of Tables
1 Dr Watson's problem 1
2 Death and the right hand 16
3 On the left bank 41
4 Kleiz, drept, luft, zeso, lijevi, prawy 60
5 The heart of the dragon 82
6 The toad, ugly and venomous 121
7 The dextrous and the gauche 146
8 The left brain, the right brain and the whole brain 168
9 Ehud, son of Gera 202
10 Three men went to mow 231
11 Keggie-hander 265
12 Vulgar errors 285
13 The handedness of Muppets 313
14 Man is all symmetrie 336
15 The world, the small, the great 354
Notes 363
Picture and Text Credits 394
Index 399
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