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

4.1 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674016132
ISBN-10: 0674016130
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Editorial Reviews

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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. (Joseph Hellige, author of Hemispheric Asymmetry: What's Right and What's Left)

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 2002-10-06)

[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 2002-10-12)

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 2002-09-15)

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 2003-03-01)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (October 25, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674016130
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674016132
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,351,734 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This book definitely makes one pay more attention to asymmetry and what it means. The book is full of very interesting research, characters,and anedoctes, and it definitely tickle one's curiosity about the whole topic. I am left-handed, but I think that right-handed people would be just as interested, also because handedness is by no means the only asymmetry explored here.

I had only two (small) problems with this book: the author proposes his genetic model for handedness stating that it is a hypothetical model. Later in the book, however, he seems to take the model a bit too much as if it were real. And the final few chapters seem a bit rushed, compared to the initial ones. All in all, a good and interesting read.
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Format: Hardcover
I'm a 'lefty', 'southpaw', 'cack-handed' etc. My daughter bought me this for my birthday. It was a very interesting read.
The only downside was that some of the chapters seemed too long, at over 30 pages? There were points when the topic of the chapter seemed exhausted, and was strung out, and on more than one occasion my interest waned, only to perk up on the next page when some new issue was introduced, and off we went again?
What I liked best was the little anecdotes, like how it took years for Canada to decide whether to drive on the Left or the Right, with British Columbia & the Maritime Provinces not changing over until after the First World War, and then still over a number years between 1920 and 1924. Similarly how Western & Eastern Austria drove on different sides of the road until 1938.
A fascinating read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a left-hand thrower in baseball and right-footed kicker in American football in my youth, I was fascinated by the enormous amount of information on left-right asymmetries presented by the erudite Professor McManus. However my confidence in the validity of the flood of information from his extraordinarily broad set of sources was marred by finding the Professor dead wrong on contributions from the two small areas that I know better than he does -- baseball and parity in physics.
The main advantage of batting left-handed is not due to that batter being closer to first base but to the easier job the left-swinger has in hitting a right-hand pitcher's curve ball. And switch-hitters do not have an "advantage because of the unpredictability of their shot making" but because, batting left-handed against right-handed pitchers and right-handed against left-handed pitchers, they hit curve balls better.
Also, the "asymmetry" in the force on a compass needle near a current that McManus considers that Oersted ignored in early failures to detect that force in the infancy of physics, vanishes if the experimenter uses a current to makes his own magnetized needle. Indeed, it was just that left-right symmetry of electromagnetic forces that led physicists to believe that it was likely that the other fundamental forces would be similarly
symmetric. Hence, the violation of that left-right "parity" symmetry which Yang and Lee postulated and that Wu, Ambler, and others demonstrated, was very important. I agree with McManus that the "mistake" that he describes is "incredible", but it is his mistake and not that of physicists.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I own many books on asymmetry, ranging from textbooks to lighter reads, and this outshines all of them. Some reviewers complained of the meandering, but it is welcomed by me, as the author explores the deeper meanings of life and the universe while still holding a fairly strict focus on the right/left dichotomy. The research is outstanding and the writing style is very approachable. His interjections about "his theory" are subtle, definitely not taking the shape of a self-centered rant, much like Ray Kurzweil's new book, and many others. A must-have for anyone mildly interested in the subject or looking to broaden their repertoire.
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Format: Paperback
More than any other author I can recall, Chris McManus brings the joy and the fun of scientific discovery to whomever will devote a little study and attention. Like any worthwhile scientific pursuit, some discipline is required to reap rewards, but the tour Dr. McManus leads you on is DAZZLING! I received "Right Hand Left Hand" as a Christmas gift from my brother, a physics professor, and felt some duty to read this odd looking volume. Starting at the beginning was slow, so I skipped ahead to Chapter 9, "Ehud, son of Gera"... From there it was an engaging, exciting, very informative read through the entire book!

Dr. McManus weaves a tapestry of self discovery from an amazing variety of scientific (and non-scientific too!) sources. The common theme that I sensed wasn't so much human left or right handedness , though this topic receives comprehensive coverage, but the process of scientific inquiry and discovery. Frequently, Dr. McManus relates the observation and recording of an oddity or unusual event where the discoverer did not have the least understanding of its significance. Only after other minds have absorbed and shared the knowledge, does it begin to be synthesized into an elegant structure of self discovery and often of great usefulness.

Dr. McManus moves easily through many deep fields of knowledge, and offers footnoted pathways for curious readers to pursue. His website, [...] expands on the footnotes and offers extra exploration opportunities. Biology and evolution, astrophysics, art history, archeology, geology, molecular chemistry, and even literature and poetry are all part of the journey!
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