How Humans Invented Numbers—And How Numbers Reshaped Our World

Mar 13, 2017 by

Anthropologist Caleb Everett explores the subject in his new book, Numbers and the Making Of Us

By Lorraine Boissoneault –

Once you learn numbers, it’s hard to unwrap your brain from their embrace. They seem natural, innate, something all humans are born with. But when University of Miami associate professor Caleb Everett and other anthropologists worked with the indigenous Amazonian people known as the Pirahã, they realized the members of the tribe had no word used consistently to identify any quantity, not even one.

Intrigued, the researchers developed further tests for the Pirahã adults, who were all mentally and biologically healthy. The anthropologists lined up a row of batteries on a table and asked the Pirahã participants to place the same number in a parallel row on the other side. When one, two or three batteries were presented, the task was accomplished without any difficulty. But as soon as the initial line included four or more batteries, the Pirahã began to make mistakes. As the number of batteries in the line increased, so did their errors.

The researchers realized something extraordinary: the Pirahã’s lack of numbers meant they couldn’t distinguish exactly between quantities above three. As Everett writes in his new book, Numbers and the Making of Us, “Mathematical concepts are not wired into the human condition. They are learned, acquired through cultural and linguistic transmission. And if they are learned rather than inherited genetically, then it follows that they are not a component of the human mental hardware but are very much a part of our mental software—the feature of an app we ourselves have developed.”

To learn more about the invention of numbers and the enormous role they’ve played in human society, talked to Everett about his book.

How did you become interested in the invention of numbers?

It comes indirectly from my work on languages in the Amazon. Confronting languages that don’t have numbers or many numbers leads you inevitably down this track of questioning what your world would be like without numbers, and appreciating that numbers are a human invention and they’re not something we get automatically from nature.

In the book, you talk at length about how our fascination with our hands—and five fingers on each—probably helped us invent numbers and from there we could use numbers to make other discoveries. So what came first—the numbers or the math?

I think it’s a cause for some confusion when I talk about the invention of numbers. There are obviously patterns in nature. Once we invent numbers, they allow us access to these patterns in nature that we wouldn’t have otherwise. We can see that the circumference and diameter of a circle have a consistent ratio across circles, but it’s next to impossible to realize that without numbers. There are lots of patterns in nature, like pi, that are actually there. These things are there regardless of whether or not we can consistently discriminate them. When we have numbers we can consistently discriminate them, and that allows us to find fascinating and useful patterns of nature that we would never be able to pick up on otherwise, without precision.

Numbers are this really simple invention. These words that reify concepts are a cognitive tool. But it’s so amazing to think about what they enable as a species. Without them we seem to struggle differentiating seven from eight consistently; with them we can send someone to the moon. All that can be traced back to someone, somewhere saying, “Hey, I have a hand of things here.” Without that first step, or without similar first steps made to invent numbers, you don’t get to those other steps. A lot of people think because math is so elaborate, and there are numbers that exist, they think these things are something you come to recognize. I don’t care how smart you are, if you don’t have numbers you’re not going to make that realization. In most cases the invention probably started with this ephemeral realization [that you have five fingers on one hand], but if they don’t ascribe a word to it, that realization just passes very quickly and dies with them. It doesn’t get passed on to the next generation.

Source: How Humans Invented Numbers—And How Numbers Reshaped Our World | Innovation | Smithsonian

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