That the right hand is favoured for practical use by most members of the human race seems, from the evidence, to be undisputable. That much pan-cultural knowledge seems to legitimise this with specific forms and methods of suggesting superiority to the right hand also seems to be the case. It is this symbolic expression of the dexterity differential which holds the fascination of the discipline of Anthropology.
The right hand being pre-eminent is not a symbolic expression, but it can in the physical sense, be regarded as a global constant. It is the spoken or unspoken, ritual or practical ways in which people understand and percieve this which should be important, and whether this knowledge is furnished by societal construction or exists as a psychological response to the bodily condition of being right handed.
Hertz started this debate with his article ‘On the pre-eminence of the right hand’ one of only three articles he wrote before being killed in the first world war. In it he proposes to examine why human populations are over-whelmingly right handed, or place special emphasis on the right hand. He rejected that this was simply a reflection of the ‘natural’ physical state of the body, pointing out that in no other primate is the same degree of importance applied to the single hand. He says that all social hierarchies, in order to justify their survival, claim to be founded on ‘the nature of things’, physei, ou nomo. He believes that the pre-eminence of the right hand is another one of these false claims, and that it is a phenomenon created by the human condition of sociality and psychology. Taking into account some evidence from the time, stating the the reason for right handedness could well be the development of the left cerebrum and it’s correspondence with the right hand side of the body, Hertz simply asserts that he believes this condition to be the effect of the social importance placed on the right hand rather than the cause of it. In the Netherlands Indies (Hertz says):
“One of the signs of a well-brought-up child is that its lieft hand has become incapable of any independent action.” Hertz .P5.
He thus dismisses the argument that there was an inherent organic cause for right-handedness, calling it dubious and insufficient. Demonstrating that one can lose the use of the right hand and subsequently train the left hand to perform all of the same tasks to the same standard, and that it can be trained anyway, for instance to play the violin.
So therefore he has to search for reasons why the right hand might be valued over and above the left hand for humans and humans alone. It must therefore be because of something restricted to the worlds of human beings, those of cultured behaviour and social organisation. Hertz saw the reason for the disparity between left and right as an unavoidable consequence of the human psychological need for symbolic duality when classifying objects. In associating right with things male, light and sacred, as opposed to the profane, dark femininity of left Hertz tries to analyse what he percieves to be the patterns of human classificatory systems which underly all human societies’ view of the right hand ( a misguided view as we shall see). Hertz Provides ethnographies to support his claims including that of the Maori.
Reporting from other ethnographies, we learn that for the Maori, the right is the side of life and left the side of death, the right represents the high upper world and sky, the left the underworld and death. Similarly, he feels, amongst the Wulwong of Australia there are certain activities which would hint at some values which correspond loosely to those found in the maori. During ritual periods of ceremonial drumming the men hold the stick in the right hand (which is called The Man) and with it strikes the stick in the left hand (The Woman) to produce the rhythm.
I would have to add here that it is not just primitive thought which can be seen to differentiate sides of the body according to Hertz’ descriptions: in The Catholic faith, depictions of the last judgement always have the right hand of Christ pointing to heaven and the left to hell, as clear an association with sacred and profane as we can hope to find. His theory is not totally without exceptions though. In a paper delivered by M Grenat in 1938 French sociologists and anthropologists were told about the Chinese situation in which a marked differentiation exists between left and right, but it is not so easy to say whether the right hand is pre-eminent, even though it is the most commonly used for practical uses. Although ‘the Chinese are obligatorily right-handed’ (P44) the honourable side is the left, and both hands perform different tasks corresponding to the yin and yang, although it should be stressed that these are not seen in opposition to each other
“Everything is a matter of convention because everything is a matter of what is fitting. ” P44.
The Right hand is always used for eating by both sexes, but in some areas the use becomes gender determined: when bowing a boy will cover the right hand with the left, so as to expose the Left, Yang, male hand, whereas a girl would cover the Left with the Right. Although many aspects of Chinese culture do seem to be diametric poles such as right and left, yin and yang, they are not seen as opposing, but as complementary, even though the lfet side is favoured for moral purposes.
“It is enough to know that there is an equivalence between west and right, and between east and left, to see that the right eye must be less good than the left
eye, the left ear better than the right ear.” P 46 Granet.
Amongst the Ancient Greeks the use of symbolic, binary opposition was much more marked and we can see evidence for this in many texts including Homer Hesiod and Aristotle. The Right was seen as lucky whereas the Left was unlucky, and among a larher scheme of things with light, east, white, sky and up in contrast to darkness, west black, earth and down, as on a pythagorean table in Aristotle. He writes of his belief that all movement originates from the right hand side giving three pieces of evidence for this.
1.) Men carry burdens on their left shoulder
2.) They also step off with the right foor (both of which he considered to start with movement from the right)
3.) Men defend themselves with their right hand.
These ‘natural’ functions make the right more honourable than the left.
“the starting point is honourable, and above is more honourable than below, and front than back, and right than left.” Aristotle, cited in Lloyd p.174.
Rodney Needham developed the idea of left and right opoositions in the cultures he came into contact with, into a larger scale version which saw all binary oppositions as related in the human mind. He saw dual symbolic classification as a structural part of society and a global feature of human thought. The difficulty, in the case of the right hand, when we come to defining reasons why it may be axpressed as superior by so many people in different cultures (bar the Chinese), is that this symbolic expression is based upon what appears to be a physical imbalance present at birth. Of course this is arguable, but an anthropologist trying to find an underlying reason or pattern for symbolic expression when it is founded in empirical reality will face a much harder task. Hertz’s concept that the right hand may have been developed to be more important in an evolutionary sense is a very interesting one, although it can’t be proved or disproved. If it did occur it would have had to happen at a very early stage in man’s development from the Great Apes in order to have permeated every human settlement on the globe.
Anthropologists have found ways to make conditions such as the pre-eminence of the righthand, intto a global expression of universal dual lic classification and binary opposition. We must be very careful. As we can see in the case of the Chinese, put forward by M. Granet, these underlying princples do not transfer so readily across all cultural boundaries (altthough it must be said that the number of cultures which do share something similar is striking) and the risk is being run of universalising psychological, cultural symbolic expression, which are very presonal to both individuals and particular cultures.