“We live in a ‘handist’ society”, so my left-handed daughter proclaimed. She was not out of primary school when her new ‘moral issue of our time’ was articulated. Everything normal was developed for right-handed people and whenever left-handed humans were remembered, it was as a concession to the defective.
I confess it wasn’t till I was the father of a left-handed daughter that I had any idea of the extent of the repressive dominance of right-handed culture. I knew that some words for left-handedness were less than polite: from our Latin heritage the ‘dextrous’ right-handed person could easily feel superior to the ‘sinister’ lefties, and our modern terms ‘south-paws’ and ‘goofy footers’, while affectionate, were still indicative of ‘strange’ if not ‘inferior’. Only 10% of females and 12% of males are lefties, but it was more than statistical normality for there was a sense that right was right and left should be left behind.
Previous generations, and still some cultures today, tried to train lefties out of their unorthodox predilection, with varying degrees of success and considerable trauma. I can remember children at school being encouraged to learn to write with their right hand. Those who resisted and insisted on using their left hand looked awkward when writing, smudged their work more often and were difficult to sit next to. When they reached university they were given one desk in each row on the extreme edge of the lecture theatre to fight over with the claustrophobics.
Then there is the whole gamut of activities that assume right-handedness – from cutlery setting to violin playing, from hockey to polo, from scissors to potato peelers – left handed people are disadvantaged. Some things, like scissors have their own left handed versions (at a price); others like hockey just require you to play right-handedly.
Of recent times, like the revenge of the nerds, lefties have been demonstrating greater sporting abilities than average. This is not true in all sports (golf gives no advantage) but in adversarial sports, like tennis and cricket, where right-handers have less experience confronting left-handed opponents, the lefties seem to come out on top. And not just sporting heroes – actors, musicians and academics are giving lefties new confidence. A few years ago, when President Obama met Prime Minister Abbott it was two lefties greeting each other.
Research on the source of left-handedness is inconclusive. There seems a genetic component, but heritability appears to be only one factor. Other theories look at environmental factors, especially prenatal ones. But, as with much of human behaviour, there are many factors at work.
Humans are very complex, and our behaviour patterns are affected by both nature and nurture. It is not just that our biology affects our behaviour; our behaviour can also affect our biology. Knowing the brain’s capacity to develop new neural pathways through behavioural stimulation, changes our perception of our biology as a ‘given’. Understanding the plasticity of the brain has opened up for us new possibilities for stroke victims and others whose brain has been damaged, and makes us wonder how other behaviours, especially in our childhood, have influenced the way our brain functions as an adult.
The human brain takes a long time to develop to maturity. Apparently it is not till the mid twenties that the average male is able to intuitively sense danger. Not only do young lives need protection till their brains are fully developed but also young brains need protection from the effects of unsuitable behaviour and substances that are detrimental to their development, for example, alcohol has a more harmful effect on the immature brain than on the adult brain.
However, to what extent is our behaviour ‘determined’ by our biology. The feminist rejection of Freud’s gender determination was expressed in the rejoinder “Biology is not destiny.” Our biology certainly sets some limits upon us. I will not as a male be able to bear children. I am not ”faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”. It will also give me tendencies to the left hand or to the right. Biology does affect and limit my behavioural choices. Still that is quite different to saying that it ‘determines’ my behaviour.
Any person may have a biological predisposition towards something and an environmental encouragement from family, culture and peer pressure but that does not mean that they must, or even will, do it. Our testosterone levels may be higher than average and we may grow up in a violent home, but that does not determine that we have to be violent or use violence to solve our problems. Neither nature nor nurture provides a justifiable defence for bad behaviour. There is no need to discover which it is so that we can excuse ourselves and blame our genes, or our parents. There is no point determining why an adulterer or a thief commits adultery or theft – the behaviour is wrong and unacceptable. There is a person between the background and the behaviour and that person must take responsibility for their actions.
Our behaviour may predispose us toward certain actions. Our actions may lead to our addiction. But help is always available. Stopping is always possible. And the great news of the gospel is that forgiveness is accessible through the death and resurrection of Jesus and that change is achievable through his Holy Spirit. We may not change our thoughts and inclinations but we can change what we do. Our temptations may still come, our predispositions still entice us, but our behaviours can be controlled.
There is no reason for a left-handed person to do things with their right hand, because there is no sin in using your left hand. There is every reason for a sinful person to give up sinning for the wages of sin is death, just as the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).