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Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 801-806

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The Many Sides of Asymmetry

Robert Aunger
University of Cambridge

Right Hand, Left Hand: The Origins of Asymmetry in Brains, Bodies, Atoms, and Cultures. Chris McManus. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 2002; 432 pp.

In an age when popular science books seem to be written about just about anything—there are several currently circulating, for instance, on the topic of coffee, and two on the role of cod in world history—we have here an entry that discusses an apparently idiosyncratic and potentially trivial topic: asymmetries of various kinds. It is also a book that ranges widely across normal disciplinary boundaries, as suggested by the book's subtitle: "The origins of asymmetry in brains, bodies, atoms and cultures." It turns out that "handedness" or asymmetry can be found in phenomena ranging from the smallest to largest scales of organization. We are told of left-handed sub-atomic particles such as neutrinos, left-handed amino-acids, the left-sided heart, and our lateralized brains, in which language abilities are usually found in the left hemisphere. The book's author, Chris McManus, a professor of Psychology and Medical Education at University College London, is someone who admits to a nearly life-long obsession with this topic. This isn't surprising, since it would take a life-time to acquire the expertise necessary to cover the range of topics so lucidly conveyed in this book. McManus really covers a lot of ground, and the book makes for a fascinating read. One can't help but learn some new things and gain new perspectives. McManus also has a real passion for his subject, making for some [End Page 801] lively prose, with fascinating anecdotes. But it was winning a prize for popular science writing in a contest sponsored by a British medical trust that put the idea of writing the book into the author's head. Given that no one but McManus is likely to be expert in all the areas he covers, it's just as well that he deals with each topic presuming little background.

But why should anyone really be interested in so arcane a subject as symmetry? Is this book simply something one picks up to flip through, looking for that juicy tidbit to impress listeners at the next cocktail party? Handedness or symmetry, after all, is not something that is regularly advertised in academic job descriptions as an area of expertise, so one need not read this to catch up on some well-recognized area of research.

One might wonder, in particular, why should an anthropologist read a volume like this? Much of what the book covers falls into the domains of other sciences like physics and biology. But the book's title mentions "asymmetries in culture," and several chapters are devoted to analyzing cultural topics. For example, McManus provides explanations for why some countries drive on the left, and why some scripts move from left to right (e.g., English), while others are written in the opposite direction (e.g., Hebrew). These phenomena are basically just social conventions, sometimes acquired by transmission from other groups, so no universal principle is at work here (which is why there are examples of both kinds of rules in each case).

But other features of culture and society are not so variable. In fact, there is, McManus argues, a universal symbolic association of right with good and left with bad. For example, he provides lists from Aristotle (derived from "principles" established by the Pythagoreans) and a variety of cultural groups (such as the Gogo of Tanzania) that can be compiled to produce a compelling world-view based on this simple dichotomy:

odd even
one many
male female
straight crooked
light dark
good evil
moon sun
sky earth
east west [End Page 802]
life death
back front
above below
sacred profane
village forest
clean dirty
strength weakness
black white
cool hot

Lots of rituals must go in clock-wise progression as well, McManus notes (just think of passing food around a table). Religions are full of symbolic asymmetries...


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