2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Distinguished Research Fellow, English Department, Washington & Jefferson College; Author, The Storytelling Animal

The Faurie-Raymond Hypothesis

I read about the Faurie-Raymond Hypothesis a long time ago, but it didn't click with me until I fought big Nick. Nick is a national guardsman who trains with me at the local mixed martial arts academy. Technically we were just sparring, not fighting. But Nick is so strong, his punches so sincere, that even when he tries to throw gentle, he makes your consciousness wobble, makes you realize, if you hadn't before, that the goal of boxing is to shut down the brain. The bell rang and we engaged and my fear passed quickly into disorientation. Something wasn't right. Nick is powerful but he's not more skillful than I, and he's not what you would call a graceful mover or a sophisticated striker. Nick plows forward: jab, cross; jab, cross. Nick plows forward: jab, cross; jab, cross, hook. Nick doesn't bob. Nick doesn't weave. Nick plows forward.

So why couldn't I hit him? Why were my punches grazing harmlessly past his temples or glancing off his belly. And why, whenever I tried to slip and counter, was I eating glove leather? I tracked him through the blur of his hands and all of the angles looked wrong, the planes of his face and body askew. There was nothing solid to hit. And all the while he was hammering me with punches I sensed too late—slow and heavy blows, but maddeningly oblique.

When the bell finally saved me, we embraced (it's a paradox: nothing makes men love each other so much as a good-natured fist fight). I collapsed in one of the folding chairs with my head throbbing and the sweat rolling down, and I said to myself: "That seals it. Faurie-Raymond has to be true."

Nick represents a type that ninety percent of boxers fear and despise on sight. Nick is a lefty, which is, according to my pugilism professor, "an abomination" and "a birth defect." Here, my professor joins other righty authorities in the sweet science (they refer to themselves as "orthodox," as if to point up lefty perversion), who don't seem to be kidding when they say, "All southpaws should be drowned at birth."

My professor's claim that lefties are defective has a surprising grain of truth in it. In a world of scissors and school desks shaped for righties, being a lefty is not just annoying. It seems to be bad for you. According to a number of studies, lefties are at higher risk for disorders like schizophrenia, mental retardation, immune deficiency, epilepsy, learning disability, spinal deformity, hypertension, ADHD, alcoholism, and stuttering.

Which brings me to Charlotte Faurie and Michel Raymond, a pair of French scientists who study the evolution of handedness. Left-handedness is partly heritable and is associated with significant health risks. So why, they wondered, hasn't natural selection trimmed it away? Were the costs of left-handedness cancelled out by hidden fitness benefits?

The scientists noted that lefties have advantages in sports like baseball and fencing where the competition is interactive (but not in sports, like gymnastics or swimming, with no direct interaction). In the elite ranks of cricket, boxing, wrestling, tennis, baseball and more, lefties are massively over-represented. The reason is obvious. Since ninety percent of the world is right-handed, righties usually compete against each other. When they confront lefties, who do everything backwards, their brains reel, and the result can be as lopsided as my mauling by Nick. In contrast, lefties are most used to facing righties; when two lefties face off, any confusion cancels out.

Faurie and Raymond made a mental leap. The lives of ancestral people were typically more violent than our own. Wouldn't the lefty advantage in sports—including combat sports like boxing, wrestling, and fencing—have extended to fighting, whether with fists, clubs, or spears? Could the fitness benefits of fighting southpaw have offset the health costs associated with left-handedness? In 1995 Faurie and Raymond published a paper supporting their prediction of a strong correlation between violence and handedness in preindustrial societies: the more violent the society, the more lefties. The most violent society they sampled, the Eipo of Highland New Guinea, was almost thirty percent southpaw.

What makes a scientific explanation beautiful? General factors like parsimony play a role, but as with any aesthetic question, quirks of personal taste bulks large. Why do I find the Faurie-Raymond Hypothesis attractive? Partly because it was an almost recklessly creative idea, and yet the data seemed to fit. But mainly because the undoubtable truth of it was pounded into my brain by a young soldier sometime last year.

This is not to say, with apologies to Keats, that beauty and truth are synonyms. Sometimes the truth turns out to be dull and flat. Many of the loveliest explanations—the ones we adore with almost parental fondness--turn out dead false.And this is what T. H. Huxley called scientific tragedy: "the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."

Many studies have since examined the Faurie-Raymond Hypothesis. Results have been mixed, but facts have surfaced that are, to my taste, quite decidedly ugly. A recent and impressive inquiry, found no evidence that lefties are over-represented among the Eipo of Highland New Guinea.

It hurts to surrender a beloved idea--one you just knew was true, one that was stamped into your mind by lived experience not statistics. And I'm not yet ready to consign this one to the bone yard of lovely--but dead--science. Faurie and Raymond brought in sports data to shore up their main story about fighting. But I think the sports data may actually be the main story. Lefty genes may have survived more through southpaw success in play fights than in real fights—a possibility Faurie and Raymond acknowledge in a later paper. Athletic contests are important across cultures, and if we think they are frivolous we are wrong. Around the world, sport is mainly a male preserve, and winners—from captains of football teams to traditional African wrestlers to Native American runners and lacrosse players—gain more than mere laurels. They elevate their cultural status—they win the admiration of men, the desire of women (research confirms the stereotype: athletic men have more sexual success). This raises a bigger possibility: that our species has been shaped more than we know by the survival of the sportiest.