Meet Me at Cheiron 2017 and Learn about the Multiplicity of Neuro-Centrisms in Handedness Research around 1900

My paper “Left-Handed Complements: Forging Connections between Handedness, Speech Ability, and Brain Asymmetry around 1900” was recently admitted for presentation at Cheiron 2017, to be held at Mississippi State University in Starkville, MS, June 22 to 25.

The program is absolutely terrific!

Check out the (long) abstract of my own talk, to be recycled for Chapter 1 of my dissertation on anatomical theories of handedness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries:

French anatomist and anthropologist Pierre Paul Broca (1824–1880) revolutionized the study of language disorders in the 1860s with his famous assertion that humans speak with the left half of their brains. Broca made this discovery in the context of aphasia research. Individuals with left-sided brain insults tended to develop right-sided paralyses and lose their ability to speak. Hence, Broca concluded that a highly developed left brain hemisphere underlies the exceptional human ability to speak; he considered this asymmetry a distinctive feature of human brains.

Broca further suggested that the location of the speech center makes the left hemisphere the dominant half of the brain, and he inferred that the wide-spread human preference to use the right hand is a by-product of the relative superiority of the left brain hemisphere. In this way, Broca complemented the contemporary idea of left-handedness as an atypical manual preference with an assertion of abnormal brain anatomy.

A crucial counterpart to Broca’s clinically oriented studies is the work of Italian physician and craniologist Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909), one of the founders of criminology. Lombroso maintained that left-handedness is a visible sign of mental and moral underdevelopment. Many German academics, educators, and writers supported the view of the ‘sinister’ left-hander and put forth more evidence for the close association between mind, brain, speech, and hands.

In the first part of my paper, I analyze the European reception and extension of Broca’s and Lombroso’s work. I illustrate the extent to which the discourse about this very specific brain–body relationship exemplifies the fear of human degeneration during the Second Industrial Revolution. And I illustrate the ways in which a brain-based understanding of handedness led to the scientific justification of the marginalization of left-handers.

Despite the pathologizing tendencies of Broca’s postulates, they were to some extent liberating for left-handers. This is what I consider in the second part of my paper. Several European educators and physicians adopted Broca’s idea that handedness is an innate quality. They argued that left-handedness can thus not be considered a moral problem. Some recommended that society should stop discriminating against left-handers and that schools should abandon their practice of retraining left-handers to write with their right hands. Other reformers even maintained that forced hand switching disrupts the speech center in the brain and leads to stuttering. The British King George VI (1895–1952), for instance, was supposed to have been a victim of such practices. I juxtapose the aforementioned degenerative fears with the reformist rhetoric, highlighting that both positions relied on the same science.

The Janus-faced debate surrounding innate cerebralized handedness had a contestant. Several European researchers questioned the brain-centric concept of handedness in the early 20th century altogether, as I show in the final part of my paper. These scholars opposed Broca’s and Lombroso’s theories by offering more integrated, embodied theories of hand preference. Popular in Germany, for instance, was the theory that manual preference results from an asymmetry of the interior organs and/or blood vessels. Even more radical was the proposal of French Anthropologist Robert Hertz (1881–1915). He studied handedness as one category of binary thinking in non-industrialized cultures. His inquiry into the cultural roots of dexterity led him to suggested that most humans are left-brained because they are right-handed, not the other way round.

Drawing on published works and archival material, I trace the discourse of these three different understandings of handedness, which all transcend manual preference. I characterize the major groups that contributed to this conversation, namely the exceptionalist-degenerationists, the brain-centric reformists, and the brain-centrism opponents. I contextualize their research methods and textual practices against the backdrop of the professionalizing mind and brain sciences as well as the momentous Industrial Revolution. I ask what handedness model the different scholars explicitly endorsed, and what ideas about humanity and its subgroups were at stake. This also leads to an examination of the kinds of science and scientists that were considered apt to create knowledge about the modern human.

The history of handedness research around 1900 exemplifies an early stage in the development of what we might call a ‘neuro-centrism’ (the attempt to explain all aspects of human behavior, cognition, and personality by referring to the structure and function of the brain). The question I pursue is not if or why but how the essentialization of handedness occurred and how its etiology was absorbed by the brain sciences. In doing so, I also highlight the seemingly liberating aspects of turning manual behavior into an innate quality. Finally, I discuss the contemporary relevance of 100-year old proposals that opposed this early form of brain-centric human typologies.


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