From The New England Journal of Medicine
Is failure of parity conservation in physics the reason conservatives are called right-wingers and liberals are called left-wingers? If the very concept eludes you, you need to read Chris McManus's grand unified theory of asymmetry. Professor of psychology and medical education at University College London and editor of the journal Laterality, McManus brings a lively erudition to "the world (cosmos), the small (micros) and the great (megas) -- each with its own handedness." Under his tutelage, you will learn that one and a half million years ago, Homo habilis invented the toothpick and held it with the right hand, that the name of the Aztec war god, Huitzilopochtli, means "left-handed hummingbird," and that left-handedness was at one time illegal in Albania. You will encounter Immanuel Kant ruminating over absolute versus relational space, Dr. Thomas Watson describing situs inversus, Louis Pasteur discovering dextro- and levo-enantiomers, Paul Broca examining an aphasic patient who could say only the word "tan," Ernst Mach declaring that a symmetric brain cannot distinguish asymmetric stimuli or make asymmetric responses, and Wolfgang Pauli pondering whether "the Lord is a weak-left-hander." You will gaze on Paolo Uccello's 15th-century fresco of a clock that goes counterclockwise, Johann Tischbein's portrait of Goethe showing the Great Man with two left feet, and Federico Fellini's witty doodles after a stroke that resulted in hemispatial neglect. Gustave Coriolis will explain to you why tornadoes in the northern hemisphere spin counterclockwise whereas tornadoes in the southern hemisphere spin clockwise, and Richard Feynman will explain to you why mirrors do not reverse right and left but rather front and back. You will also be introduced to Professor McManus's own genetic model of right- and left-handedness and to his belief that the persistence of a gene allowing a small minority of the population to be left-handed might be adaptive for the population as a whole. After this intellectual smorgasbord, will you be persuaded that perturbations of the weak force are the reason that Edward Kennedy sits on one side of the aisle and Trent Lott on the other? I was not; rather, I was reminded of Murray Gell-Mann's remark (referring to Roger Penrose's attempt to explain consciousness in terms of quantum gravity) that we do not deal with earthquakes in terms of quarks. Persuaded or not, however, you will greatly enjoy the time you spend in Professor McManus's company. John C.M. Brust, M.D.
Copyright © 2003 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS.
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. (Robert Macfarlane The Spectator
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. (William D. Hopkins Nature
[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. (Emily Nussbaum Boston Globe
[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. (Edward Rothstein New York Times
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. (Charles Rousseaux Washington Times
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. (C. S. McCoy Choice