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The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved And Why Numbers Are Like Gossip Paperback – May 22, 2001

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The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved And Why Numbers Are Like Gossip + Introduction to Mathematical Thinking + The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; Reprint edition (May 22, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465016197
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465016198
  • Product Dimensions: 0.9 x 5.2 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #356,455 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

For many, the mere word "mathematics" is enough to conjure memories of incomprehension at school, and fear and loathing ever afterward. Countless otherwise well-educated people see mathematics as the skeleton in their intellectual closet--the one key subject demanding a talent that they so obviously did not possess.

Or so it seems to anyone who has felt very much on the outside of the subject. British mathematician Keith Devlin is certainly on the inside, and in The Math Gene, he has wonderful news for everyone: we can all join him there. For Devlin argues that we all possess the ability to cope with mathematics--if only we recognize what's required. While a number of recent books, notably Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense, have focused on numerical ability, the scope of Devlin's book is much larger. He examines the evidence that we all possess, if not literally a gene, then at least an inherent ability not just for arithmetic but for real mathematics: algebra, calculus, and the rest. Devlin even puts forward a Darwinian explanation for the origin of this ability, based on the idea that being able to handle abstract ideas and relationships confers key evolutionary advantages.

Mathematics merely involves a relatively high level of abstraction--but one we can all cope with, if we work at it. "Doing mathematics is very much like running a marathon," writes Devlin. "It does not require any special talent, and 'finishing' is largely a matter of wanting to succeed."

In its wealth of wonderful examples supporting the central argument, The Math Gene bears comparison with Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, and its plain common sense about this most misunderstood of subjects is inspirational. Thoroughly recommended for anyone seeking to rid their intellectual closet of the skeleton of mathematical "incompetence." --Robert Matthews, --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Recently, luminaries like Steven Pinker have shown lay audiences neat theories about how language works and how our "language instinct" evolved. In the same years, writers like David Berlinski have made higher math entertaining and accessible. Here, prolific math writer and NPR commentator Devlin (The Language of Mathematics) has joined these two strands of popular science writing. Using up-to-date cognitive psychology, along with the history of math, Devlin aims to unfold our "innate sense of number" and to show what it has to do with language. He also hopes, more ambitiously, to win readers over to his own hypothesis about how our language and math "instincts" arose. Experiments show that chimps, like us, "use symbols to denote numbers," though human toddlers are far better at it. Combining a number sense with symbolic abilities, we use abstractions to manipulate quantities, leading to arithmetic and potentially to calculus and number theory. After several stellar chapters devoted largely to psychology experiments, Devlin switches gears to higher math, giving examples of how abstract models describe concrete thingsAfrom rotating clock faces to rattlesnake skins. The book takes another sharp turn, into the stimulating but quite crowded field of hypotheses about how our brains came to be. While responsibly laying out several hypotheses, Devlin favors the idea that enhanced symbolic abilities let early hominids think "off-line," asking and answering "what if" questions about tools, predators, habitats or prey. Some may wish Devlin had written two booksAone about math and language, the other about language and evolution; the former would likely ace the latter. Most readers, though, will appreciate the broad, accessible syntheses he does provide. 35 illus. (Sept.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Dr. Keith Devlin is a mathematician at Stanford University in California. He is a co-founder and Executive Director of the university's H-STAR institute, a co-founder of the Stanford Media X research network, and a Senior Researcher at CSLI. He has written 31 books and over 80 published research articles. His books have been awarded the Pythagoras Prize and the Peano Prize, and his writing has earned him the Carl Sagan Award, and the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics Communications Award. In 2003, he was recognized by the California State Assembly for his "innovative work and longtime service in the field of mathematics and its relation to logic and linguistics." He is "the Math Guy" on National Public Radio. (Archived at

He is a World Economic Forum Fellow and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His current research is focused on the use of different media to teach and communicate mathematics to diverse audiences. He also works on the design of information/reasoning systems for intelligence analysis. Other research interests include: theory of information, models of reasoning, applications of mathematical techniques in the study of communication, and mathematical cognition.

He writes a monthly column for the Mathematical Association of America, "Devlin's Angle":

Customer Reviews

Unfortunately, this is typical of most other arguments in the book.
M. Le Corre
In the book The Math Gene, author Keith Devlin stated that math is just a special use of our language faculty and every one should be able to do math.
Luke James
Peer out from the other person's mind from time to time to see more!
Donald Mitchell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Devlin's "The Math Gene" is a wonderful book, well worth reading if you've an interest in how we think, and absolutely essential if your interest extends further to why we can do mathematics.
This is an intriguing question. After all, it's a fairly new part of human behavior - having been around maybe 10,000 years - that we all can do, at least a bit, and the rest of the animal kingdom can't, at least as far as we know.
Devlin's the first mathematician I know of who's looked deeply into this subject using recent research in the area; he's done a great job fitting the available data to a theory that starts to answer the question, how it is we can do mathematics?
First, though, you have to understand what mathematics really is. Devlin's definition is the "science of patterns" and he explains clearly and convincingly why it's the right one.
His premise, roughly, is that however we acquired language, and he stays mostly on the sidelines of the heated debates about that, mathematical ability came along for the ride. His reasoning is that "off-line reasoning" is an essentially equivalent to language, as you can't have one without the other, and that this plus some other abilities, such as a number sense and spatial reasoning, give us the ability to do mathematics.
He then explains why so many of us find the subject difficult. A simplified version is that we use language mainly to talk about interpersonal relationships. In a word, gossip. Note he's not claiming this to have been the purpose for it's development, just that it's what we mostly do with it now. And we're very good at gossiping. In fact, it's so easy we consider it to be a form of relaxation.
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30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Mike Christie on December 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
"The Math Gene" presents a theory of how mathematical ability and language are related, and how they might have evolved. Devlin starts by separating "number sense" from mathematical ability. Many animals as well as humans can estimate the quantity of something; rats can be taught to press a lever about sixteen times to get a reward. The "about" is significant though; it's an estimate, not an exact count, as far as the rats are concerned. So if number sense and mathematical ability are not the same, what else is needed for mathematics? Devlin lists eight other attributes, including algorithmic ability, a sense of cause and effect, and relational reasoning ability.
Then there's a fairly long discussion of mathematics from the inside--are mathematician's brains different? What is it mathematicians do?--including a moderately detailed description of the basics of mathematical groups. I think Devlin does this to provide non-mathematicians with a sense of what mathematics is about, to make the rest of the book more plausible. This section is well-written and fluent, but I found myself getting a little impatient for the meat of his argument, which comes in the last half of the book. I suspect any reader with a good mathematics background would react the same way.
The next piece of the argument is to demonstrate that language is unlikely to have developed solely as a result of evolutionary pressure towards communication. This is a subtle point I haven't seen made before, but Devlin (who acknowledges his debts to other workers in this area) makes the case quite convincing. In summary: apart from extremely simple messages like "Danger!" and "Mammoth here" you can't communicate what you don't have a mental representation of.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Allen Moore on December 20, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The author presents a carefully crafted theory of how language developed in humans, and links our innate mathematical abilities to this skill with language. Although his position is that everybody has some level of mathematical skill beyond number sense, he never really addresses in detail why some people have an aptitude for math and others don't, other than to mention the mathematician's ability to cope with abstraction.

This is the second book by Devlin I've read, and I'm impressed by his boldness in escorting the reader through difficult mental terrain. If you find the topic of language development interesting, and you're willing to exert some mental effort to keep up with his arguments, you'll find this book a thought-provoking read. However if you want to know why high-school algebra gave you such trouble, you'll have to look elsewhere for the answer.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
The Math Gene is a wonderful insight into mathematics and how humans may have evolved the ability for mathematical thought. Dr Devlin gives a powerful argument for his theory in three parts. He begins with an explanation of the nature of mathematics, and dispells many misconceptions about math held by people outside of the mathematics community. He then spends the bulk of his text describing the nature and evolution of language and communication in humans and their differences with animals in that respect. He explains what pressures in the environment would be necessary to cause an evolutionary change in language and thought in a way that is understandable by a layperson and plausable to someone with a strong scientific background. He ends his book with a comparison of the mind's mathematical and language processes, why language (particularly gossip) must have preceded mathematical thought, and why mathematical thought is a direct product of any consciousness capable of language.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and have recommended it to friends and colleages alike. I would also recommend another one of Devlin's books, The Language of Mathematics, for a glimpse into the diverse and beautiful world of math any person could understand and appreciate.
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