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Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures Hardcover – March 13, 2017
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Carved into our past, woven into our present, numbers shape our perceptions of the world and of ourselves much more than we commonly think. Numbers and the Making of Us is a sweeping account of how numbers radically enhanced our species’ cognitive capabilities and sparked a revolution in human culture. Caleb Everett brings new insights in psychology, anthropology, primatology, linguistics, and other disciplines to bear in explaining the myriad human behaviors and modes of thought numbers have made possible, from enabling us to conceptualize time in new ways to facilitating the development of writing, agriculture, and other advances of civilization.
Number concepts are a human invention―a tool, much like the wheel, developed and refined over millennia. Numbers allow us to grasp quantities precisely, but they are not innate. Recent research confirms that most specific quantities are not perceived in the absence of a number system. In fact, without the use of numbers, we cannot precisely grasp quantities greater than three; our minds can only estimate beyond this surprisingly minuscule limit.
Everett examines the various types of numbers that have developed in different societies, showing how most number systems derived from anatomical factors such as the number of fingers on each hand. He details fascinating work with indigenous Amazonians who demonstrate that, unlike language, numbers are not a universal human endowment. Yet without numbers, the world as we know it would not exist.
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“Fascinating…This is bold, heady stuff…The breadth of research Everett covers is impressive, and allows him to develop a narrative that is both global and compelling. He is as much at home describing the niceties of experimental work in cognitive science as he is discussing arcane tribal rituals and the technical details of grammar…It is often poignant, and makes a virtue of the author’s experiences with some of the indigenous peoples he describes, based on a childhood following his missionary parents―in particular his famous father, Daniel Everett―into the Amazon jungle…Numbers is eye-opening, even eye-popping. And it makes a powerful case for language, as a cultural invention, being central to the making of us.”―Vyvyan Evans, New Scientist
“Everett buttresses his argument with an impressive array of studies from different fields…It all adds up to a powerful and convincing case for Everett’s main thesis: that numbers are neither natural nor innate to humans but ‘a creation of the human mind, a cognitive invention that has altered forever how we see and distinguish quantities.’ His
argument that numbers played a crucial role in the development of agriculture and the complex societies it supported is equally persuasive.”―Amir Alexander, Wall Street Journal
“In this multi-disciplinary investigation, anthropologist Caleb Everett examines the seemingly limitless possibilities and innovations made possible by the evolution of number systems.”―Rachel E. Gross, Smithsonian
“Caleb Everett provides a fascinating account of the development of human numeracy, from innate abilities to the complexities of agricultural and trading societies, all viewed against the general background of human cultural evolution. He successfully draws together insights from linguistics, cognitive psychology, anthropology, and archaeology in a way that is accessible to the general reader as well as to specialists. He does not avoid controversy, making this a key contribution to a developing debate.”―Bernard Comrie, University of California, Santa Barbara
“In his journey through the millennia of human evolution, from the forests of Amazonia to the deserts of Australia, ever in search of a better understanding of human diversity, Caleb Everett presents a breathtaking narrative of how the human species developed one of its most distinct cognitive and linguistic achievements: to count and to use concepts of quantity to expand and enrich a wide range of cultural activities.”―Bernd Heine, University of Cologne
About the Author
- ASIN : 0674504437
- Publisher : Harvard University Press; 1st Edition (March 13, 2017)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 312 pages
- ISBN-10 : 9780674504431
- ISBN-13 : 978-0674504431
- Item Weight : 1.15 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.6 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #567,883 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Numbers were not naturally existed for humankind, some seemingly basic mathematical concepts are not wired into the human condition. According to Everett, basic quantity recognition skills were created as a part of language activities, are learned, and acquired through cultural and linguistic transmission. The two number senses, the approximate number sense and the exact number sense, are genetically gifted to us. He illustrates infants can recognize some disparities between quantities on an abstract, cross modal, basis, and that they are capable of doing so shortly after the birth. However, humans cannot precisely and consistently grasp exact qualities beyond three unless they have numbers. Looking at the languages of the world, the basic sense of the number of human beings tries to distinguish 1 and 2 and 3 accurately, but it seems that it is roughly good if the amount is larger than that.
The human approximate number sense was present in our common mammalian ancestors. Why, if other species have the capacity to learn more elaborate kinds of numerical thought, have they not honed their own capacities over the million of years they have been evolving on a separate branch of the tree of life? Everett argues that the reason is the existence of language. This view, common mammalian ancestors have approximate number sense, also undermines prejudice against those who are not supposed to have numbers. Every small group of languages has its own way of thinking about the world. There is no difference between the culture that required the coefficient system and the culture that did not. Exact numbers are not always required. Huge numbers are not always necessary. In fact, very few have developed the coefficients such as huge numbers, places, zeros, and units. They probably arose from the need for farming, sedentism and culture of getting together and live. There is no need for hunter-gatherers to count grain quantities, troops, or taxes.
Physical sensations were at the root of the intellectual system. The invention of numbers is attained through our fingers. Human beings who started bipedal walking focused on their fingers and toes, and the decimal system was born. Everett constructs the process with a wealth of imagination. Physically grounded metaphors and fictive motion are both central to the construction of mathematical reasoning. The Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the current IT society were also brought by the creation of numbers by humankind. Can human beings, who have been getting out of the body with a heavy emphasis on the cerebral cortex and computers, continue to capture the world in the future?
The book contains a few nuggets of information that I found enlightening, but they're few and far between. Oh, and by the way, the suggestion that numbers contributed in any significant way to what we are is unsupported. There are far too many "it is possible," "it seems likely," "perhaps," "it's not implausible," and such. The book has a very professional cover, but, as the saying goes, don't judge a book by its cover.
Top reviews from other countries
I learned such a lot and now want to know more!