You cannot be serious - are left-handed people nature's way of starting a fight?

Alexander the Great was one, as was Billy the Kid and John McEnroe. Now scientists believe they can explain why some people are left-handed, and it's all to do with coming out on top in a fight.

Alexander the Great was one, as was Billy the Kid and John McEnroe. Now scientists believe they can explain why some people are left-handed, and it's all to do with coming out on top in a fight.

About 10 per cent of Britons habitually use their left hand rather than their right and for years biologists have been mystified as to why such a significant minority of people should be born left-handed.

It is known that left-handers tend to suffer more health problems and are at greater risk of serious accidents compared to right-handers. So, all other things being equal, the left-handed trait, which is largely genetic, should have died out long ago in prehistory.

There must, therefore, be some hidden advantage to being left-handed that counteracts the risks, but the problem for biologists was trying to work out what this advantage was. One idea is that, in the days when arguments were resolved by hand-to-hand combat, being left-handed gave people the benefit of surprise against right-handers. This advantage, however, would only have persisted if left-handers remained in the minority, otherwise right-handers would soon get accustomed to fighting with left-handed opponents.

Now two researchers from the University of Montpellier have found evidence to support this controversial idea. They believe that the more violence there is in a pre-industrial society, the greater the advantage of being left-handed.

Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond compared homicide rates, which includes murders and executions, in eight native societies around the world, from the Inuit of the Arctic to the Yanamamo indians of the Amazon. They found that as this measure of violent aggression increased in each society, so did the proportion of men who are left-handed.

Dr Faurie said: "We have found a direct correlation between the level of violence in a given society and the proportion of left-handers. This indicates that fighting can be an important selection pressure in the evolution of left-handedness."

They admit that a homicide rate that includes executions and gang murders is probably not an accurate measure of one-to-one fights in society, but it was the best measure available. "This result strongly supports the fighting hypothesis. More generally, it points to the importance of violence in understanding the evolution of handedness in humans," she said. Left-handedness has existed in human societies since the upper Palaeolithic, or early Stone Age, and in every society studied, it is right-handers who have been in the majority.

It is also well established that left-handers often have an edge in sports such as tennis, cricket, boxing or baseball, where there are dual confrontations between opposing competitors. Other sports, such as gymnastics, show no such bias.

Dr Faurie and Dr Raymond believe confrontational sports are similar to violent, one-on-one combat. "Interactive sports in Western societies are special cases of fights, with strict rules, including a particular prohibition of killing or intentionally wounding the opponent," they write in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

If left-handers in combat sports have an advantage when they are in the minority, then the same could also be true in fights and battles, they argue. "If this is true, then the advantage of being left-handed should be greater in a more violent context, which should result in a higher frequency of left-handers," they add.

This is just what the two researchers found when investigating homicide rates in the eight native societies they studied. They found the lowest murder rates and left-handedness in the Dioula tribe of Burkina, and the highest in the Yanamamo and the Jimi valley people of Papua New Guinea.

Dr Faurie said that the left-handed advantage would have only existed for men, who carry out most of the violent acts in any society. But the trait would still persist in women because it tends to be inherited through the maternal line. Professor Chris McManus of University College London, who has carried out an extensive investigation of left- and right- handedness, said that although the theory of Dr Faurie and Dr Raymond was plausible, there are problems in interpreting the data in they way they have. "The sample sizes were small and the methods they used were not as reliable as they could have been. I'm far from convinced," he said.

There must have been an advantage for a minority of people to be born left-handed, but trying to find out what this advantage was - or still is - remains unclear, he said. "The theory I've put forward is that despite the drawbacks of being left-handed, there are advantages in terms of creativity and other positive aspects," said the professor. "And society needed a subgroup who were different."

LEFT-HANDED LEADERS AND CRIMINALS

Alexander the Great

One of the most successful military commanders of the ancient world, he was King of Macedon from 336BC to his death in 323BC. His empire stretched from Greece to northern India.

Napoleon Bonaparte

The French Revolution general and ruler of France from 1799 was 28 when he had established himself as the greatest French general of all time.

Billy the Kid

According to legend, Billy the Kid killed 21 men, one for each year of his life - butthe actual figure is probably nine. The killer, born in 1860, was gunned down in the Chihuahuan desert by the New Mexico sheriff.

Jack the Ripper

His murders in east London in late 1888 have never been solved. Post-mortem evidence suggested that the Ripper was left-handed.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
life
News
news

The party's potential nominations read like a high school race for student body president

Voices
A mother and her child
voices
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballI have never seen the point of lambasting the fourth official, writes Paul Scholes
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee