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02 APRIL, 2014

From the Gold Rush to Silicon Valley: How Mark Twain Became the Steve Jobs of His Day

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The power of mischief, timing, and typography.

Mark Twain has no shortage of cultural credits — celebrated humorist, irreverent adviser to little girls, opinionated critic and cultural commentator, underappreciated poet, recipient of some outrageous requests from his fans. But perhaps his greatest feat was his own becoming — how he transformed Samuel Clemens into Mark Twain, “the Lincoln of Literature.”

In The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (public library), Ben Tarnoff chronicles that becoming alongside the rise of the singular “vanguard of democracy” that shaped the course of the Western written word, a course largely steered by Twain. Embedded in the altogether fascinating story, on a closer read, is a testament to history’s cyclical nature as a parallel emerges between San Francisco in the Gold Rush era and Silicon Valley today, and between the respective patron saints of those worlds — Mark Twain and Steve Jobs.

Born in 1835, Twain came of age “at the best possible time,” as the country was on the cusp of a remarkable cultural change, driven in large part by the discovery of gold in California in 1848 — the spark for the famous Gold Rush, which drew risk-takers, pioneers, and enterprising vagabonds from all over the world and elevated San Francisco as a gateway to the era’s El Dorado. Twain, born in the west and raised in Missouri, found in San Francisco what many entrepreneurs today find in Silicon Valley — like many other young men, he “hadn’t come to stay, but to get rich and get out.” The confluence of all these cultural and personal factors created a unique backdrop:

They erected tents and wooden hovels, makeshift structures that made easy kindling for the city’s frequent fires. They built gambling dens and saloons and brothels. They lived among the cultures of five continents, often condensed into the space of a single street: Cantonese stir-fry competing with German wurst, Chilean whores with Australian. On the far margin of the continent, they created a complex urban society virtually overnight.

By the time Twain got there, San Francisco still roared. It was densely urban, yet unmistakably western; isolated yet cosmopolitan; crude yet cultured. The city craved spectacle, whether on the gaslit stages of its many theaters or in the ornately costumed pageantry of its streets. Its wide-open atmosphere endeared it to the young and the odd, to anyone seeking refuge from the overcivilized East. It had an acute sense of its own history, and a paganish appetite for mythmaking and ritual.

Mark Twain in 1863, taken on his first visit to San Francisco. He was twenty-seven.

It’s unsurprising, then, that the city quickly sprouted a thriving literary scene — a “band of outsiders” known as the Bohemians — for writers are a culture’s foremost mythmakers. Tarnoff captures their spirit:

The Bohemians were nonconformists by choice or by circumstance, and they eased their isolation by forming intense friendships with one another. San Francisco was where their story began, but it would continue in Boston, New York, and London; in the palace and the poorhouse; in success and humiliation, fame and poverty.

Two concurrent and seemingly opposite cultural forces contributed to the rise of the Bohemians: On the one hand, the Civil War disrupted America’s moral and aesthetic tradition, creating “rifts in the culture wide enough for new voices to be heard”; on the other, the technological advances brought on by the war had also shrunk the country, bringing East and West closer together with the advent of the railroad and the telegraph. San Francisco was in a unique position to reap the fruits of both developments, and “its writers found a wider readership at a moment when the nation sorely needed new storytellers.

In joining the Bohemians, Twain forever changed the course of both his own life and American literature. Tarnoff writes:

No Bohemian made better art than Twain. San Francisco gave him his education as a writer, nurturing the literary powers he would later use to transform American literature. He would help steer the country through its newfangled nationhood, and become the supreme cultural icon of the postwar age. But first, he would spend his formative years on the Far Western fringe, in the company of other young Bohemians struggling to reinvent American writing.

Artwork by Debbie Millman. Click image for more.

Tarnoff’s enchanting portrait of young Twain is remarkable in several ways — it is exquisitely written, it paints a somewhat timeless picture of the eccentric entrepreneur archetype, but perhaps most of all it reveals details about the beloved author of which most of us are unaware, for seemingly trivial reasons related to the trajectory of recording technology: left with only black-and-white photographs as sensory documentation of his life, we are deaf-blind to details like his striking carrot-colored hair or the peculiar drawl and even more peculiar rhythm of his speech. Tarnoff brings young Twain to life:

What people remembered best about him, aside from his brambly red brows and rambling gait, was his strange way of speaking: a drawl that spun syllables slowly, like fallen branches on the surface of a stream. Printers transcribed it with hyphens and dashes, trying to render rhythms so complex they could’ve been scored as sheet music. He rasped and droned, lapsed into long silences, soared in the swaying tenor inherited from the slave songs of his childhood. He made people laugh while remaining dreadfully, imperially serious. He mixed the sincere and the satiric, the factual and the fictitious, in proportions too obscure for even his closest friends to decipher. He was prickly, irreverent, ambitious, vindictive — a personality as impenetrably vast as the American West, and as prone to seismic outbursts. He was Samuel Clemens before he became Mark Twain, and in the spring of 1863, he made a decision that brought him one step closer to the fame he craved.

Cover of 'Advice to Little Girls,' which Twain wrote at the age of thirty in 1865. Click image for more.

So on May 2, 1863, Samuel Clemens boarded a stagecoach headed to Mark Twain via a rocky two-hundred-mile journey to San Francisco. At age 27, he was already extraordinary before he had even arrived:

The young Twain … already had more interesting memories than most men twice his age. He had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, roamed his native Missouri with a band of Confederate guerrillas, and as the Civil War began in earnest, taken the overland route to the Territory of Nevada — or Washoe, as westerners called it, after a local Indian tribe.

Originally, Twain hadn’t planned to stay long, but he found himself entranced by the city’s perpetual cycle of eating, drinking, sailing, and socializing. In a letter to his mother and sister from mid-May, he announced he was only going to stay a little while longer — ten days or so, and no more than two weeks. But San Francisco’s bountiful buffet of saloons, dance halls, and gambling dens sang to him a siren song he could not resist. By June, he was still there, living “to the hilt” (to borrow Anne Sexton’s term) and estimating that he knew at least a thousand of San Francisco’s 115,000 citizens — “knew” in the pre-Facebook sense, which makes the scale of his social life all the more impressive.

He eventually left in July, but the spell had been cast:

Over the course of the next year he would find many reasons to return: first to visit, then to live. He would chronicle its quirks, and hurt the feelings of not a few of its citizens. In exchange, San Francisco would mold him to literary maturity. It would inspire his evolution from a provincial scribbler into a great American writer, from Hannibal’s Samuel Clemens into America’s Mark Twain.

One particular detail about Twain made me consider a curious parallel between him and Steve Jobs beyond their similar cultural legacy of revolutionizing their respective fields: Twain, like Jobs, was a disobedient boy (his mother described him as “very wild and mischievous”) who hated school. But perhaps most importantly, he was a typesetter by trade and dropped out of school (as did Jobs) to become “a printer’s devil,” as type apprentices were called at the time. It was through typesetting that he entered into literature, and through typesetting that he found his irreverent voice. Tarnoff writes:

The shop became his schoolroom. He put other people’s lines into print and composed a few of his own. He learned to think of words as things, as slivers of ink-stained metal that, if strung in the right sequence, could make more mischief than any schoolboy prank. At fifteen he began typesetting for his brother Orion’s newspaper, the Western Union, and wrote the occasional sketch. When Orion left on a business trip and put his sibling in charge, the teenager lost no time in testing the incendiary potential of the medium. He ignited a feud with the editor of a rival newspaper, scorching the poor man so thoroughly that when Orion returned, he was forced to run an apology.

This sounds remarkably like the story of Steve Jobs, whose era-defining design vision was first tickled by a typography class that he serendipitous wandered into, out of academic mischief and boredom with his prescribed course. Type led Jobs to design innovation and Twain to literary innovation. Both men also came of age at a time of incredible technological progress — for Jobs, the golden age of modern computing, and for Twain, the momentum of the Industrial Revolution. As a young man, Twain saw steamboats and trains and telegraphs transform the diffusion of the printed word across the country. He witnessed America’s booming love affair with newspapers — a century before he was born, the country had 37 newspapers. By the time he entered typesetting, there were more than a thousand.

Tarnoff contextualizes the significance of this shift, and the particular fertility of Twain’s locale of choice:

The newspaper revolution created America’s first popular culture. Twain belonged wholly to this revolution, and the world he discovered in the Far West was its most fertile staging ground… By 1870, California had one of the highest literacy rates in the nation: only 7.3 percent of its residents over the age of ten couldn’t write, compared with 20 percent nationwide. The region’s wealth financed a range of publications and gave people the leisure to read them. As Twain observed, there was no surer sign of “flush times” in a Far Western boomtown than the founding of a “literary paper.” Poetry and fiction mattered to miners and farmers, merchants and bankers. For them the printed word wasn’t a luxury — it was a lifeline. It fostered a sense of place, a feeling of community, in a frontier far from home.

The Bohemians is fantastic read in its entirety. Complement it with Twain on religion and our human egotism, morality vs. intelligence, and his mischievous advice to little girls.

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01 APRIL, 2014

Why Look at Animals: John Berger on What Our Relationship with Our Fellow Beings Reveals About Us

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“[Animals] are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge.”

“Erasing the awe-inspiring variety of sentient life impoverishes all our lives,” Joanna Bourke wrote in her fascinating chronicle of our understanding of what it means to be human, an awareness inextricably entwined with a parallel understanding of the animal experience of our fellow sentient beings. Jon Mooallem put it even more poignantly in his beautiful and bittersweet meditation on the fate of wildlife today: “Maybe you have to believe in the value of everything to believe in the value of anything.” And yet how readily we, as a civilization and as individuals, stop believing in the value of that awe-inspiring variety of sentient life.

Hardly anyone has addressed this disquieting cultural tendency with more dimension than John Berger, best-known for his brilliant 1972 critique of consumer culture, Ways of Seeing. In his essay “Why Look at Animals?,” part of the altogether fantastic 1980 anthology About Looking (public library), Berger examines the evolution of our relationship with animals and how they went from muses for the very first human art, as cave men and women adorned their stone walls with drawings of animals painted with animal blood, to spiritual deities to captive entertainment.

Chauvet cave drawings from '100 Diagrams That Changed the World.' Click image for more.

He opens with a poetic reminder of how it all began:

To suppose that animals first entered the human imagination as meat or leather or horn is to project a 19th century attitude backwards across the millennia. Animals first entered the imagination as messengers and promises. For example, the domestication of cattle did not begin as a simple prospect of milk and meat. Cattle had magical functions, sometimes oracular, sometimes sacrificial. And the choice of a given species as magical, tameable and alimentary was originally determined by the habits, proximity and “invitation” of the animal in question.

But there was also something else that drew us closer to our fellow beings as they went from our bonfires to our backyards to our beds — some other kind of singular comfort they offered. As any devoted pet-parent (to use a term rather telling in itself) can attest, a big part of what makes those bonds so intimate is the unconditional affection pets provide, a lack of conditions largely premised on their inability to speak, to talk back, in our human language, coupled with their capacity to speak directly to the soul. Berger writes:

With their parallel lives, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered by human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species. Such an unspeaking companionship was felt to be so equal that often one finds the conviction that it was man who lacked the capacity to speak with animals — hence the stories and legends of exceptional beings, like Orpheus, who could talk with animals in their own language.

Illustration by Isabel Arsenault from 'Jane, the Fox and Me.' Click image for more.

Berger adds:

What were the secrets of the animal’s likeness with, and unlikeness from man? The secrets whose existence man recognized as soon as he intercepted an animal’s look.

In one sense the whole of anthropology, concerned with the passage from nature to culture, is an answer to that question.

Leo from Salvador Dalí's zodiac series, 1967. Click image for more.

The spiritual quality of that animal gaze, Berger reminds us, stretches much further back than the age of domestication — animals comprise eight of the twelve ancient signs of the zodiac, and the Greeks signified each of the twelve clock-hours of the day with an animal. But that representational capacity was also precisely what separated us from other animals:

What distinguished man from animals was the human capacity for symbolic thought, the capacity which was inseparable from the development of language in which words were not mere signals, but signifiers of something other than themselves. Yet the first symbols were animals. What distinguished men from animals was born of their relationship with them.

Berger cites Aristotle’s History of Animals, considered the first scientific work on the subject, in which the legendary philosopher anthropomorphizes animals by suggesting that they carry traces of our “human qualities and attitudes,” such as “fierceness, mildness or cross-temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirits or low cunning, and, with regard to intelligence, something akin to sagacity.” That anthropomorphism, rooted in our systematic use of the animal as a metaphor, continued up until the 19th century. Berger laments:

In the last two centuries, animals have gradually disappeared. Today we live without them. And in this new solitude, anthropomorphism makes us doubly uneasy.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

Berger goes on to trace how animals went from caves to carts to cages. The Industrial Revolution gave us the internal combustion engine, which displaced draught animals from both streets and factories. But while this was undoubtedly an upgrade for both animal rights and human productivity, removing animals from our view was detrimental to our sense of shared everyday reality. Meanwhile, as urbanization and industrialization spread, the extinction of wildlife continued removing animals from that reality — more than that, it forcibly denied them the chance to share it with us and instead confined them to the artificial reality of the zoo. Berger draws an unsettling parallel:

This reduction of the animal, which has a theoretical as well as economic history, is part of the same process as that by which men have been reduced to isolated productive and consuming units. Indeed, during this period an approach to animals often prefigured an approach to man.

Alongside this cultural change emerged another significant shift — the rise of pets, which Virginia Woolf’s nephew argued were an extension of human fashion and vanity. Noting that at the time of his writing the United States was home to an estimated 40 million dogs, 40 million cats, 15 million cage birds and 10 million other pets, Berger contextualizes our compulsion for domestic animal companionship:

The practice of keeping animals regardless of their usefulness, the keeping, exactly, of pets (in the 16th century the word usually referred to a lamb raised by hand) is a modern innovation, and, on the social scale on which it exists today, is unique. It is part of that universal but personal withdrawal into the private small family unit, decorated or furnished with mementoes from the outside world, which is such a distinguishing feature of consumer societies.

[…]

Equally important is the way the average owner regards his pet. (Children are, briefly, somewhat different.) The pet completes him, offering responses to aspects of his character which would otherwise remain unconfirmed. He can be to his pet what he is not to anybody or anything else. Furthermore, the pet can be conditioned to react as though it, too, recognizes this. The pet offers its owner a mirror to a part that is otherwise never reflected. But, since in this relationship the autonomy of both parties has been lost (the owner has become the-special-man-he-is-only-to-his-pet, and the animal has become dependent on its owner for every physical need), the parallelism of their separate lives has been destroyed.

Cartoon by George Booth from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Cats.' Click image for more.

But beneath this spiritual role of pets in completing the human self lies a darker dynamic, one in which the notion of caretaking becomes an imbalance of power. Berger writes:

In the accompanying ideology, animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.

That dynamic was even more pronounced in the public zoo — a 19th-century innovation that came into existence as animals began to disappear from our daily lives. Emerging as an emblem of colonial power, where the capturing of animals became a trophy in the conquest of exotic lands, the zoo changed not only our relationship with animals, but also our very language. Berger cites the London Zoo Guide:

About 1867, a music hall artist called the Great Vance sang a song called Walking in the zoo is the OK thing to do, and the word ‘zoo’ came into everyday use. London Zoo also brought the word ‘Jumbo’ into the English language. Jumbo was an African elephant of mammoth size, who lived at the zoo between 1865 and 1882. Queen Victoria took an interest in him and eventually he ended his days as the star of the famous Barnum circus which travelled through America — his name living on to describe things of giant proportions.

Berger poignantly observes:

The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe them, to see them, is, in fact, a monument to the impossibility of such encounters. Modern zoos are an epitaph to a relationship which was as old as man.

Illustration from 'The Animal Fair' by Alice and Martin Provensen. Click image for more.

But perhaps the most bittersweet reflection on the changing role of animals in our lives comes from the domain of children — the same observation that sparked Jon Mooallem’s ode to wildlife as he watched his little girl play with stuffed animals the real versions of which would be extinct by the time she grew up. Berger writes:

Children in the industrialized world are surrounded by animal imagery: toys, cartoons, pictures, decorations of every sort. No other source of imagery can begin to compete with that of animals. The apparently spontaneous interest that children have in animals might lead one to suppose that this has always been the case. Certainly some of the earliest toys (when toys were unknown to the vast majority of the population) were animal. Equally, children’s games, all over the world, include real or pretended animals. Yet it was not until the 19th century that reproductions of animals became a regular part of the decor of middle class childhoods — and then, in this century, with the advent of vast display and selling systems like Disney’s — of all childhoods.

(Perhaps MoMA curator Juliet Kinchin put it best in her design history of childhood, where she observed that “children help us to mediate between the ideal and the real” — and nowhere is the disconnect between the two more dramatic than in children’s animal toys.)

Returning to the zoo, where animals have become isolated from each other and deprived of interaction between species, where they have come to rely helplessly on their keepers for survival, Berger draws yet another chilling parallel between the animal experience and human culture:

All sites of enforced marginalization — ghettos, shanty towns, prisons, madhouses, concentration camps — have something in common with zoos. But it is both too easy and too evasive to use the zoo as a symbol. The zoo is a demonstration of the relations between man and animals; nothing else. The marginalization of animals is today being followed by the marginalization and disposal of the only class who, throughout history, has remained familiar with animals and maintained the wisdom which accompanies that familiarity: the middle and small peasant. The basis of this wisdom is an acceptance of the dualism at the very origin of the relation between man and animal. The rejection of this dualism is probably an important factor in opening the way to modern totalitarianism.

Photograph by Sharon Montrose from her series 'Menagerie.' Click image for more.

The zoo, then, fulfills Joanna Bourke’s admonition and by marginalizing and impoverishing the lives of animals, it does the same to our own. Berger concludes:

The zoo cannot but disappoint. The public purpose of zoos is to offer visitors the opportunity of looking at animals. Yet nowhere in a zoo can a stranger encounter the look of an animal. At the most, the animal’s gaze flickers and passes on. They look sideways. They look blindly beyond. They scan mechanically. They have been immunized to encounter, because nothing can any more occupy a central place in their attention. Therein lies the ultimate consequence of their marginalization… This historic loss, to which zoos are a monument, is now irredeemable for the culture of capitalism.

About Looking is well worth a read in its entirety. Complement it with Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, one of the best science books of 2013, then revisit these favorite books about animals.

Thanks, Raghava

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31 MARCH, 2014

The Evolutionary Mystery of Left-Handedness and What It Reveals About How the Brain Works

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From Medieval sword-fighters to Broca’s brains, or why the hand may hold the key to the link between creativity and mental illness.

“Sahara is too little price / to pay for thy Right hand,” Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem. “The right hand = the hand that is aggressive, the hand that masturbates,” Susan Sontag pondered in her diary in 1964. “Therefore, to prefer the left hand! … To romanticize it, to sentimentalize it!” The human hand has long carried cultural baggage, and yet we still struggle to unclutch from it the myths and reveal the realities.

The question of why some humans are left-handed — including such notable specimens as Plato, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Debbie Millman, Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, and Albert Einstein* — has perplexed scientists for centuries. For Southpaws themselves — the affectionate term for lefties — this biological peculiarity has been everything from a source of stigma to a point of pride. But at the heart of it remains an evolutionary mystery — one that Wired contributing editor David Wolman, himself (but of course) a lefty, sets out to investigate in A Left-Hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery and Meaning of All Things Southpaw (public library).

Wolman, who spoke about the oddity of handedness in a fantastic recent Radiolab episode about conflict, traces 200 years of biological and psychological perplexity as he scours the world for answers, from a Parisian science museum that houses pioneering French surgeon and scholar Paul Broca’s bottled brains to a castle in Scotland that hides clues to the heritability of left-handedness to the neuroscience labs of Berkeley to the golf courses of Japan.

To be sure, a Southpaw wasn’t always a mere scientific curiosity, let alone the “lefty superiority complex” which Wolman both notes and embodies — for centuries, it was the subject of superstition, which bestowed upon its owner a serious social curse. Wolman writes:

In the Western world, left-handedness has long been associated with the worst of the worst: sin, devil worship, Satan himself, and just an all-around bad position with God. Catholic schoolteachers used to tell students that left-handedness was “the mark of the Beast,” the Scots say a person with terrible luck must have been baptized by a left-handed priest, and orthodox Jews wrap their left arms in the leather strap of tefillin as if to say, in the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Here I am, standing with my dangerous side bridled, ready to pray ” The Bible is full of references to hands, and usually they are about God doing something benevolent and holy with his right hand. I’ll spare you the run-through and stick to a token example, like this one from Psalms 118: “The right hand of the Lord is exalted. The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.”

Carl Sagan, a lefty

While Carl Sagan once hypothesized that the cultural link between left-handedness and badness arose due to the left hand’s use for hygiene purposes in nonindustrialized countries, Wolman points out that the association has much deeper roots, including the very etymology of the word “left”:

The Anglo-Saxon lyft means weak or broken, and even modern dictionaries include such meanings for left as “defective,” “crippled,” “awkward,” “clumsy,” “inept,” and “maladroit,” the latter one borrowed from French, translated literally as “bad right.” Most definitions of left reduce to an image of doubtful sincerity and clumsiness, and the Latin word for left, sinister, is a well-known beauty. From this version springs my favorite term for left-handedness, “the bend sinister,” which Vladimir Nabokov used for the title of a book that has nothing to do with handedness.

Even today, our understanding of handedness is muddled by misconceptions. While it’s currently estimated that 10-12% of the human population is left-handed, the very definition of handedness is cause for confusion:

Most people presume the hand used for writing is the litmus test for determining whether someone is lefty or righty, and for anyone content to live with a pedestrian level of knowledge on the subject, this narrow reading will serve well enough. [And yet] everyday tasks, like throwing and eating, also influence the popular understanding of hand dominance, sometimes nearly as strongly as writing. These different behaviors lead immediately to a quintessential problem of handedness inquiries: how to define handedness itself. The definition of lefty or righty varies, sometimes to a frustrating degree, and that variation has troubled researchers who want to get a better handle on why it is that humans have hand preference and performance discrepancies in the first place, where these discrepancies come from, and why as a population we usually favor the right hand.

Also to be accounted for is the fact that many people are born with a natural inclination to write with the left hand but are schooled out of it for various reasons. (I myself, an adult righty, am among them. The most visceral evidence is found on my left thumb, whose pad an elongated scar splits vertically. It was inflicted while carving a watermelon jack-o-lantern at age six and accidentally flipping the knife the wrong way, pressing onto its edge rather than its blunt side. The fact that I held the knife in my left hand is cited to this day as indication of my natural left-handedness. The fact that I held the knife at all is cited as indication of questionable parenting.)

The most commonly used test for handedness is this imperfect inventory created in the early 1970s, which generates what researchers call a laterality quotient:

Still, even if we were able to codify handedness, the question of why the dichotomy exists in the first place remains open. But before diving into the various theories, Wolman offers an essential primer on how the brain works:

It’s a well-known aspect of the brain-body relationship that control of movement is crisscrossed. That is, the act of swatting at a buzzing mosquito with the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain, or more specifically by a certain area of the left hemisphere known as the left motor cortex, which sends the necessary signals to muscles in the right arm. The reverse is true for actions carried out with the left hand, and all of this is irrespective of handedness. The hemisphere on the same side as a movement isn’t entirely silent … but for the most part motor control comes from the opposite hemisphere. This contralateral control, first described by Hippocrates himself, isn’t limited to hands. It applies to arms, legs, eyes, ears, and indeed almost all motor faculties, which is why people who’ve had a stroke or tumor on one side of the brain often experience partial or total paralysis on the opposite side of the body.

[…]

The left and right sides of the brain are physically quite distinct. The brain is made up of two mostly separate halves, each composed of billions and billions of neural connections. Yet despite popular notions to the contrary, left-handed people do not think in the right hemisphere of the brain, nor do right-handers think in the left hemisphere. The motor cortex, that part of each hemisphere cross-wired to control the other side of the body, is only one relatively minor aspect of this dizzyingly complex organ, and it says nothing or nearly nothing about a person’s thoughts or personality.

So what can the brain reveal about handedness? One of the first scientists to ponder the mystery of left-handedness was pioneering French surgeon Paul Broca, whom Wolman calls “the closest thing the religion of Southpaw has to a prophet.” In 1861, just two years after Darwin had discovered the principles of evolution, Broca encountered two patients who stumped him profoundly. One was an epileptic man named Leborgne but known as “Tan,” nicknamed after the only syllable he was capable of uttering. Leborgne was able to understand spoken language but couldn’t articulate his thoughts in speech — something that perplexed Broca enormously, doubly so given that one of Leborgne’s first symptoms was a weakening of function in the right side of his body, which progressed to more loss of motor control and eventually the loss of sight and some of his mental faculties.

When Leborgne died at the age of 51, Broca decided to crack the mystery — literally. He dissected Leborgne’s brain and found a massive lesion in the left frontal cortex, likely due to a tumor. Broca concluded that this must somehow be related to Leborgne’s symptoms, of which the loss of speech was the most dramatic. But a direct link would take longer to recover.

Then came Lelong, an elderly patient who had ended up in Broca’s care after a fall, only able to utter a few words. When Lelong died two weeks later, Broca discovered a similarly dramatic lesion in the left side of his brain, which is preserved to this day in Paris.

But the most perplexing of Broca’s patients were the few who had either had damage to the left hemisphere but no difficulties with speech or who had lost their ability to speak but only had damage in the right hemisphere. This led Broca to conclude that for a minority of people, the speech centers were located in the right rather than left hemispheres, which he at first thought might be tied to handedness, but later surmised that both phenomena were anomalous exceptions and weren’t correlated. Still, his work was the first significant spark for the study of handedness and stirred quite the flurry within the scientific community. Wolman points out the clash between science and popular culture that ensued:

Because some people are an exception to the language-to-the-left rule, and because a similarly small proportion of people are left-handed, everyone and his cousin in the medical establishment figured the two must go hand in hand; lefties should have language lateralized to the right. What’s interesting about this conclusion is that few people in nineteenth-century Europe would have admitted to being left-handed. Detecting someone’s left-handedness would have been difficult, with eating, writing, and other major tasks all usually carried out with the right hand. What’s also interesting about this conclusion is that it’s wrong. Nearly 99 percent of right-handers have language located in the left hemisphere, and about 70 percent of lefties do. A different proportion, yes, but hardly the opposite; most lefty brains are like righty brains, at least as far as speech function is concerned. The rest either have language in the right hemisphere, or have it distributed more evenly between the two sides of the brain.

Paul Broca

Though Broca himself had gently dismissed the link between handedness and right-hemispheric speech dominance, he hadn’t gone out of his way to assert the dissociation, so the myth that lefties had their speech located in the right hemisphere persisted for nearly half a century. It wasn’t until WWI, when physicians began to notice that injured veterans who were lefties didn’t necessarily have right-hemispheric language localization, that the myth began to erode and the quest for new theories gained momentum.

Wolman points to several of the notable theories that followed, each in turn disproven by science but offering a valuable piece of the still-unfinished puzzle. One of the earliest proposed that handedness in humans was originally evenly distributed, but hand-to-hand battle in the ancient world killed off the lefties because they held the sword with their left hand and the shield in their right, thus leaving the heart much less protected than for righties, who held the shield on the left. As the lefties perished on the battlefield, so did their genes.

The theory was disproven for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is evidence of left-handedness long before the invention of the sword and shield as well as the biological reality that the heredity of handedness isn’t so straightforward.

A later theory proposed pretty much the opposite — that left-handedness gave warriors a competitive advantage “for much the same reason left-handed tennis players, boxers, or fencers have an advantage.” Wolman cites the example of a left-handed 16th-century Scottish warrior from the famous Kerr clan:

The lefty advantage exists because, in a world with far fewer lefties than righties, right-handed, or even left-handed, opponents have comparatively little practice facing off against left-handers. Lefty forehands are hit from that less familiar side, their stronger punches originate from that less comfortable side, and their opposing stance differs from what people are accustomed to, namely right-handed opponents. For Andrew Kerr, the matter was of far greater import than for, say, John McEnroe serving up another ace to the ad-court at Wimbledon; for Kerr, success with the sword was a matter of life and death.

[…]

French scientists recently hypothesized that fighting advantages for left-handers in prehistoric human societies ensured reproductive success. To test the idea, they looked at the homicide rates in various societies, wondering if the Southpaw advantage might be magnified within historically more violent populations. From the results, it looks like it was, with proportions of left-handedness ranging from 3.4 percent in an especially pacifist African community in Burkina Faso to 22.6 percent in a notoriously violent culture in South America. Southpaws aren’t more violent, of course, but may have had a survival advantage in societies that were.

Still, these hypotheses were never proven with any degree of verifiability. Fast-forward to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind proposed a theory that endured for many years: He suggested that high levels of testosterone in the womb led to a minor mutation in the brain, which caused its organization to shift away from right-handedness. One support point cited for his theory is the fact that there are slightly more male lefties than female.

An earlier womb theory had posited that the fetus’s orientation inside fosters its sense of stability, so handedness is based on whether the fetus uses the left or right hand for balance — the free hand, in most cases the right, can then move and explore, eventually becoming the dominant one.

Once again, neither theory found sufficient support. And so we return to the brain and genetics. Wolman cites the work of English researcher Marian Annett, who discovered the key to the messy heredity patterns of handedness:

In 1972, Annett … published a paper titled, “The Distribution of Manual Asymmetry,” which, although of little notice at the time, would later serve as the foundation for one of the most widely accepted explanations of human handedness. She called it the Right Shift Theory, and she later expanded it in a 1985 volume of the same name. Annett argues that whereas human handedness is comparable to the left- or right-side preferences exhibited by other creatures with hands, paws, feet, or what have you, the approximate 90 percent predominance of right-handedness in the human population sets us apart. All other animals have a 50-50 split between righties and lefties. According to Annett’s model, handedness in nature rests on a continuum, ranging from strong left, through mixed, and then to strong right-handedness. But for humanity the distribution of preference and performance is dramatically shifted to the right. Human bias to the right, Annett explains, was triggered by a shift to the left hemisphere of the brain for certain cognitive functions, most likely speech. . . . That momentous shift was caused by a gene.

Of course, that question had perplexed generations of scientists since Darwin — who, by the way, was a victim of the confounding heredity of handedness: his wife and father-in-law were lefties, but only two of Darwin and Emma’s ten children were. But Annett’s Right Shift Theory was the first systematic explanation for the genetics of handedness. Still, Wolman observes the complexities of genetics:

In many ways, the genes-versus-environment dichotomy is a misleading one because so often the two work hand in hand. Say, for instance, a gene or genes instructs for a certain amount of testosterone in the womb. If the level of that hormone varies and somehow influences the development of the fetus, should traits affected by the level of testosterone be dubbed genetic or environmental? One could argue that the biochemical conditions in the womb-the fetus’s surroundings-qualify as environmental factors, but those conditions are shaped by genetic instructions. Yet within the DNA of every cell of that newborn baby, there will be no information specific to the child’s conditions in the womb. Can we call that a genetic trait? Luckily, Annett’s theory supposes a less ambivalent role for a gene, or possibly a few genes. Inside the nuclei of nearly every cell in the body are left-twisting bundles of DNA that either do or do not contain what Annett has dubbed the “Right Shift factor.”

What this series of hypotheses reveals, more than anything, is just how little we know about the inner workings of the body — despite having sequenced the human genome, here we are still struggling to explain as seemingly simple a characteristic as handedness. And yet, Wolman argues, Annett’s research was groundbreaking and immensely valuable for three reasons: “the idea of a handedness continuum; the chance-based gene predicting not individual handedness but shifted population distribution; and finally the suggestion that people are not left-handed or right-handed, but right-handed or non-right-handed.”

Vintage artwork from 'A Visual History of Magic.' Click images for details.

Perhaps the most interesting theory, however, is a rather fringe proposition that ties handedness to “magical ideation” — one’s tendency to believe in metaphysical phenomena beyond that aren’t scientifically verifiable, from supernatural forces to extrasensory perception to reincarnation and other concepts that wouldn’t hold up to Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit. Wolman cites New Zealand scholar Michael Corballis, who has written about the potential link between more brain symmetry — something found in lefties — and magical ideation:

Hemispheric asymmetry itself may lead to more decisive and controlled action, and perhaps a better ability to organize hierarchical processes, as in language, manufacture, and theory of mind. Those individuals who lack cerebral asymmetry [a.k.a. increased symmetry] may be more susceptible to superstition and magical thinking, but more creative and perhaps more spatially aware.

On the magical ideation scale — the measure of belief in such phenomena — lefties tend to score higher than righties. And yet, Wolman points out, “anecdotal evidence that lefties are highly represented in low-bullshit-tolerating professions such as journalism and science doesn’t exactly support this notion,” suggesting instead that the magical ideation hypothesis is best “recalibrated as a degree-not-direction descriptor.”

What makes this theory intriguing, however, isn’t its verifiability or lack thereof but what it reveals about our culture’s beliefs about creativity and mental illness, or cognitive abnormality. Wolman writes:

The magical ideation line of thinking loops back to creativity when we consider findings indicating an increased proportion of left-handers who suffer from such disorders as schizophrenia. With due acknowledgment once again to Corballis for synthesis of this idea, it’s plausible that schizophrenia and magical ideation sprout from similar neurological roots. Research demonstrating connections between mixed-handedness and either of these two conditions advances that plausibility.

[…]

Consider for a moment that there’s a thin, perhaps blurred line between genius and mental illness. What if some types of genius stem from the same aspect of the brain — or influence on the brain — as, say, magical ideation and schizophrenia, and that subtle variation in the arrangement of certain brain circuits determines the difference between the next da Vinci, the next graphology believer, the next Hendrix-like guitar god, or the next schizophrenic?

Albert Einstein's brain (Photograph: NMHM, Silver Spring, MD via Nature)

Wolman points to Kim Peek, the autistic “megasavant” on whom the film Rain Man is based, and perhaps most notably Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius”:

Examination of his brain after death showed unusual anatomical symmetry that … can mean above-normal interhemispheric connections. Then there’s the fact that Einstein’s genius is often linked with an imagination supercharged with imagery, a highly right hemisphere-dependent function. It was that kind of imagination that ignited questions leading eventually to the Theory of Relativity: what does a person on a moving train see compared with what a person standing still sees, and how would the body age if traveling near the speed of light in a spaceship compared to the aging process observed on Earth? Is it such a stretch to speculate that Einstein landed on the fortunate end of the same brain organization spectrum upon which other, less lucky individuals land in the mental illness category? And what if handedness too is influenced by this organizational crapshoot?

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

The investigation is ever-ongoing, but Wolman offers a wealth of other pause-giving findings and theories in the rest of A Left-Hand Turn Around the World.

* Einstein’s handedness is somewhat a matter of debate. While he is often cited among history’s famous lefties, laterality scholars have surmised that he was mixed-handed — which is not to be confused with ambidextrous: mixed-handed people use the right hand for some things and the left for others, whereas the ambidextrous can use both hands equally well for most tasks.

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