I’m about halfway through Caleb Everett’s Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures. Everett begins the book with a lengthy clarification that he thinks everyone in the world has equal math abilities, some of us just happen to have been exposed to more number ideas than others. Once that’s out of the way, the book gets interesting.
When did humans invent numbers? It’s hard to say. We have notched sticks from the Paleolithic, but no way to tell if these notches were meant to signify numbers or were just decorated.
The Ishango bone (estimated 20,000 years old, found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the headwaters of the Nile,) has three sets of notches–two sets total to 60, the third to 48. Interestingly, the notches are grouped, with both sets of sixty composed of primes: 19 + 17 + 13 + 11 and 9 + 19 + 21 + 11. The set of 48 contains groups of 3, 6, 4, 8, 10, 5, 5, and 7. Aside from the stray seven, the sequence tantalizingly suggests that someone was doubling numbers.
The Ishango bone also has a quartz point set into the end, which perhaps allowed it to be used for scraping, drawing, or etching–or perhaps it just looked nice atop someone’s decorated bone.
The Lebombo bone, (estimated 43-44,2000 years old, found near the border between South Africa and Swaziland,) is quite similar to the Ishango bone, but only contains 29 notches (as far as we can tell–it’s broken.)
I’ve seen a lot of people proclaiming “Scientists think it was used to keep track of menstrual cycles. Menstruating African women were the first mathematicians!” so I’m just going to let you in on a little secret: scientists have no idea what it was for. Maybe someone was just having fun putting notches on a bone. Maybe someone was trying to count all of their relatives. Maybe someone was counting days between new and full moons, or counting down to an important date.
Without a far richer archaeological assembly than one bone, we have no idea what this particular person might have wanted to count or keep track of. (Also, why would anyone want to keep track of menstrual cycles? You’ll know when they happen.)
The Wolf bone (30,000 years old, Czech Republic,) has received far less interest from folks interested in proclaiming that menstruating African women were the first mathematicians, but is a nice looking artifact with 60 notches–notches 30 and 31 are significantly longer than the others, as though marking a significant place in the counting (or perhaps just the middle of the pattern.)
Everett cites another, more satisfying tally stick: a 10,000 year old piece of antler found in the anoxic waters of Little Salt Spring, Florida. The antler contains two sets of marks: 28 (or possibly 29–the top is broken in a way that suggests another notch might have been a weak point contributing to the break) large, regular, evenly spaced notches running up the antler, and a much smaller set of notches set beside and just slightly beneath the first. It definitely looks like someone was ticking off quantities of something they wanted to keep track of.
Here’s an article with more information on Little Salt Spring and a good photograph of the antler.
I consider the bones “maybes” and the Little Salt Spring antler a definite for counting/keeping track of quantities.
Everett also mentions a much more recent and highly inventive tally system: the Incan quipu.
A quipu is made of knotted strings attached to one central string. A series of knots along the length of each string denotes numbers–one knot for 1, two for 2, etc. The knots are grouped in clusters, allowing place value–first cluster for the ones, second for the tens, third for hundreds, etc. (And a blank space for a zero.)
Thus a sequence of 2 knots, 4 knots, a space, and 5 knots = 5,402
The Incas, you see, had an empire to administer, no paper, but plenty of lovely alpaca wool. So being inventive people, they made do.
Everett then discusses the construction of names for numbers/base systems in different languages. Many languages use a combination of different bases, eg, “two twos” for four, (base 2,) “two hands” to signify 10 (base 5,) and from there, words for multiples of 10 or 20, (base 10 or 20,) can all appear in the same language. He argues convincingly that most languages derived their counting words from our original tally sticks: fingers and toes, found in quantities of 5, 10, and 20. So the number for 5 in a language might be “one hand”, the number for 10, “Two hands,” and the number for 20 “one person” (two hands + two feet.) We could express the number 200 in such a language by saying “two hands of one person”= 10 x 20.
(If you’re wondering how anyone could come up with a base 60 system, such as we inherited from the Babylonians for telling time, try using the knuckles of the four fingers on one hand  times the fingers of the other hand  to get 60.)
Which begs the question of what counts as a “number” word (numeral). Some languages, it is claimed, don’t have words for numbers higher than 3–but put out an array of 6 objects, and their speakers can construct numbers like “three twos.” Is this a number? What about the number in English that comes after twelve: four-teen, really just a longstanding mispronunciation of four and ten?
Perhaps a better question than “Do they have a word for it,” is “Do they have a common, easy to use word for it?” English contains the world nonillion, but you probably don’t use it very often (and according to the dictionary, a nonillion is much bigger in Britain than in the US, which makes it especially useless.) By contrast, you probably use quantities like a hundred or a thousand all the time, especially when thinking about household budgets.
Roman Numerals are really just an advanced tally system with two bases: 5 and 10. IIII are clearly regular tally marks. V (5) is similar to our practice of crossing through four tally marks. X (10) is two Vs set together. L (50) is a rotated V. C (100) is an abbreviation for the Roman word Centum, hundred. (I, V, X, and L are not abbreviations.) I’m not sure why 500 is D; maybe just because D follows C and it looks like a C with an extra line. M is short for Mille, or thousand. Roman numerals are also fairly unique in their use of subtraction in writing numbers, which few people do because it makes addition horrible. Eg, IV and VI are not the same number, nor do they equal 15 and 51. No, they equal 4 (v-1) and 6 (v+1,) respectively. Adding or multiplying large Roman numerals quickly becomes cumbersome; if you don’t believe me, try XLVII times XVIII with only a pencil and paper.
Now imagine you’re trying to run an empire this way.
You’re probably thinking, “At least those quipus had a zero and were reliably base ten,” about now.
Interestingly, the Mayans (and possibly the Olmecs) already had a proper symbol that they used for zero in their combination base-5/base-20 system with pretty functional place value at a time when the Greeks and Romans did not (the ancient Greeks were philosophically unsure about this concept of a “number that isn’t there.”)
(Note: given the level of sophistication of Native American civilizations like the Inca, Aztec, and Maya, and the fact that these developed in near total isolation, they must have been pretty smart. Their current populations appear to be under-performing relative to their ancestors.)
But let’s let Everett have a chance to speak:
Our increasingly refined means of survival and adaptation are the result of a cultural ratchet. This term, popularized by Duke University psychologist and primatologist Michael Tomasello, refers to the fact that humans cooperatively lock in knowledge from one generation to the next, like the clicking of a ratchet. In other word, our species’ success is due in large measure to individual members’ ability to learn from and emulate the advantageous behavior of their predecessors and contemporaries in their community. What makes humans special is not simply that we are so smart, it is that we do not have to continually come up with new solutions to the same old problems. …
Now this is imminently reasonable; I did not invent the calculus, nor could I have done so had it not already existed. Luckily for me, Newton and Leibniz already invented it and I live in a society that goes to great lengths to encode math in textbooks and teach it to students.
I call this “cultural knowledge” or “cultural memory,” and without it we’d still be monkeys with rocks.
The importance of gradually acquired knowledge stored in the community, culturally reified but not housed in the mind of any one individual, crystallizes when we consider cases in which entire cultures have nearly gone extinct because some of their stored knowledge dissipated due to the death of individuals who served as crucial nodes in their community’s knowledge network. In the case of the Polar Inuit of Northwest Greenland, population declined in the mid-nineteenth century after an epidemic killed several elders of the community. These elders were buried along with their tool sand weapons, in accordance with local tradition, and the Inuits’ ability to manufacture the tools and weapons in question was severely compromised. … As a result, their population did not recover until about 40 years later, when contact with another Inuit group allowed for the restoration of the communal knowledge base.
The first big advance, the one that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, was language itself. Yes, other animals can communicate–whales and birds sing; bees do their waggle dance–but only humans have full-fledged, generative language which allows us to both encode and decode new ideas with relative ease. Language lets different people in a tribe learn different things and then pool their ideas far more efficiently than mere imitation.
The next big leap was the development of visual symbols we could record–and read–on wood, clay, wax, bones, cloth, cave walls, etc. Everett suggests that the first of these symbols were likely tally marks such us those found on the Lebombo bone, though of course the ability to encode a buffalo on the wall of the Lascaux cave, France, was also significant. From these first symbols we developed both numbers and letters, which eventually evolved into books.
Books are incredible. Books are like external hard drives for your brain, letting you store, access, and transfer information to other people well beyond your own limits of memorization and well beyond a human lifetime. Books reach across the ages, allowing us to read what philosophers, poets, priests and sages were thinking about a thousand years ago.
Recently we invented an even more incredible information storage/transfer device: computers/the internet. To be fair, they aren’t as sturdy as clay tablets, (fired clay is practically immortal,) but they can handle immense quantities of data–and make it searchable, an incredibly important task.
But Everett tries to claim that cultural ratchet is all there is to human mathematical ability. If you live in a society with calculus textbooks, then you can learn calculus, and if you don’t, you can’t. Everett does not want to imply that Amazonian tribesmen with no words for numbers bigger than three are in any way less able to do math than the Mayans with their place value system and fancy zero.
But this seems unlikely for two reasons. First, we know very well that even in societies with calculus textbooks, not everyone can make use of them. Even among my own children, who have been raised with about as similar an environment as a human can make and have very similar genetics, there’s a striking difference in intellectual strengths and weaknesses. Humans are not identical in their abilities.
Moreover, we know that different mental tasks are performed in different, specialized parts of the brain. For example, we decode letters in the “visual word form area” of the brain; people whose VWAs have been damaged can still read, but they have to use different parts of their brains to work out the letters and they end up reading more slowly than they did before.
Memorably, before he died, the late Henry Harpending (of West Hunter) had a stroke while in Germany. He initially didn’t notice the stroke because it was located in the part of the brain that decodes letters into words, but since he was in Germany, he didn’t expect to read the words, anyway. It was only when he looked at something written in English later that day that he realized he couldn’t read it, and soon after I believe he passed out and was taken to the hospital.
Why should our brains have a VWA at all? It’s not like our primate ancestors did a whole lot of reading. It turns out that the VWA is repurposed from the part of our brain that recognizes faces :)
Likewise, there are specific regions of the brain that handle mathematical tasks. People who are better at math not only have more gray matter in these regions, but they also have stronger connections between them, letting the work together in harmony to solve different problems. We don’t do math by just throwing all of our mental power at a problem, but by routing it through specific regions of our brain.
Interestingly, humans and chimps differ in their ability to recognize faces and perceive emotions. (For anatomical reasons, chimps are more inclined to identify each other’s bottoms than each other’s faces.) We evolved the ability to recognize faces–the region of our brain we use to decode letters–when we began walking upright and interacting to each other face to face, though we do have some vestigial interest in butts and butt-like regions (“My eyes are up here.”) Our brains have evolved over the millenia to get better at specific tasks–in this case, face reading, a precursor to decoding symbolic language.
And there is a tremendous quantity of evidence that intelligence is at least partly genetic–estimates for the heritablity of intelligence range between 60 and 80%. The rest of the variation–the environmental part–looks to be essentially random chance, such as accidents, nutrition, or perhaps your third grade teacher.
So, yes, we absolutely can breed people for mathematical or linguistic ability, if that’s what the environment is selecting for. By contrast, if there have been no particular mathematical or linguistic section pressures in an environment (a culture with no written language, mathematical notation, and very few words for numbers clearly is not experiencing much pressure to use them), then you won’t select for such abilities. The question is not whether we can all be Newtons, (or Leibnizes,) but how many Newtons a society produces and how many people in that society have the potential to understand calculus, given the chance.
Just looking at the state of different societies around the world (including many indigenous groups that live within and have access to modern industrial or post-industrial technologies), there is clear variation in the average abilities of different groups to build and maintain complex societies. Japanese cities are technologically advanced, clean, and violence-free. Brazil, (which hasn’t even been nuked,) is full of incredibly violent, unsanitary, poorly-constructed favelas. Some of this variation is cultural, (Venezuela is doing particularly badly because communism doesn’t work,) or random chance, (Saudi Arabia has oil,) but some of it, by necessity, is genetic.
But if you find that a depressing thought, take heart: selective pressures can be changed. Start selecting for mathematical and verbal ability (and let everyone have a shot at developing those abilities) and you’ll get more mathematical and verbal abilities.
But this is getting long, so let’s continue our discussion next week.