Caleb Everett, anthropological linguistics professor at the University of Miami, discusses how some primitive societies still do and how we use numbers to make our lives easier.
I’m a cognitive scientist, more specifically an anthropological linguist. My research examines the ways language affects and reflects human thought. Much of this work has been conducted with remote populations in the jungles of Amazonia.
My new book, Numbers and the Making of Us (Harvard University Press), examines how humans invented numbers, and how numbers came to reshape our lives.
Numbers are the words and symbols that humans use to represent quantities. While regularly occurring quantities may exist in nature, say the eight legs of an octopus, numbers themselves only surface in human thought and behavior. Recent research suggests that, without access to numbers, humans are very limited in their ability to distinguish quantities. Without numbers we struggle to precisely and consistently discriminate quantities greater than 3. This conclusion is supported by studies of prelinguistic children, but also by research on a few adult populations in Amazonia and elsewhere. The people in question do not utilize numbers, or utilize only a very small set of numbers. While it is easy to exoticize such populations, the evidence suggests that their anumeric lives are not unusual in the light of the history of our species. Numbers are a relatively recent human invention. Yet they are a critical invention that ignited the human timeline by facilitating other major achievements like writing, systematic agriculture, and the precise tracking of time. While the ways humans invent numbers vary, they tend to do so by building upon the occasional and ephemeral recognition that fingers can be used to represent quantities greater than three in an exact manner. The manual route we take to create numbers is evidenced linguistically in the commonality of decimal and base-5 number systems. In fact, the word for ‘five’ in many languages is derived from the word for ‘hand’. Finger-based numbers, in both speech and writing, are a cognitive tool that most, but not all, human populations wield. These tools have radically reshaped the lives of those of us who have access to them.