How Humans Invented Numbers—And How Numbers Reshaped Our World

Mar 13, 2017

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.”

Continue reading by clicking the name of the source below.

5 comments on “How Humans Invented Numbers—And How Numbers Reshaped Our World

  • I think Caleb Everrett may usefully adopt a key idea from his dad Daniel whose work over decades with the same tribe led him to conclude that there unique lack of recursion in their own language should that recursion was a culturally generated capacity rather than an innate property of brains as Chomsky asserted as the (last remaining) causal factor of a Universal Grammar.

    Their lack of a recursive cultural “habit” is surely key to being able to take a digit or a handful and multiply it up? Piraha folk taken from their tribe early can learn Portuguese and use it recursively (compounded sentences etc.), but those learning Portuguese later cannot master its use except as a set of different words to their own. Recursion will never be theirs.

    This is a stunningly important lesson if true. Cultures may be so impoverished in one form or another that certain types of thinking may be forever prevented unless the cultural capacity is introduced to their/our children from outside….



    Report abuse

  • phil rimmer #2
    Mar 14, 2017 at 6:40 am

    Cultures may be so impoverished in one form or another that certain types of thinking may be forever prevented unless the cultural capacity is introduced to their/our children from outside….

    I am reminded of the cultural memes which are passed on by imitation!

    https://neuroecology.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/orangutan-facts/

    “They say that if you give a chimpanzee a screwdriver, he’ll break it; if you give a gorilla a screwdriver, he’ll toss it over his shoulder; but if you give an orangutan a screwdriver, he’ll open up his cage and walk away.”

    At Camp Leakey, the orangutans had plenty of opportunity to observe and imitate people.
    They soon developed a habit of stealing canoes, paddling them downriver, and abandoning them at their destinations. Even triple and quadruple knots in the ropes securing the canoes to the dock did not deter the apes.
    Over the years, they have also learned to brush their teeth, bathe themselves, wash clothes, weed pathways, wield saws and hammers, and soak rags in water in order to cool their foreheads with them. And they have done all of this without any instruction.




    Report abuse

  • I’m crap at multi-tasking

    led him to conclude that there unique lack of recursion in their own language should that recursion was a culturally generated capacity

    should read

    led him to conclude that their unique lack of recursion in their own language showed that recursion was a culturally generated capacity



    Report abuse

  • Alan,

    I liked the illustration of Alex the parrot. No parrot could do what he did because parrot culture isn’t self priming yet. I suspect there is a soft threshold of some sort to meme feedback where meme’s spawn new memes (speciation) that is somehow more dramatic than that of genes with its slow parting of the ways….

    I think memes are set for a new resurgence. Dan Dennett’s new book is very memey. I think now there is enough material to make the start of a proper scientific discipline of it.



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.