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Customer Review

32 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, untestable, and plausible. Recommended., December 31, 2000
This review is from: The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip (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. The evolution of communication can't have driven representation; it must have always lagged a half-step behind. So mental representation must have evolved first. I am not doing this argument justice here, but Devlin buttresses it well.
The inference is that language is simply a natural but lucky result of our ability to represent the world in our minds. Devlin's key point, however, is that since mathematics is essentially the ability to construct and work with increasingly abstract representations, the same mental changes that gave rise to language have also given rise to mathematics. His conclusion is that we all have the ability to do mathematics: there is no "math gene" except in the same way there is a "language gene": it's universal.
As a side note, not critical to his main argument, he points out that the most likely reason for the growth of representational ability in human brains was to foster understanding of other humans in the group; to encourage a sense of group-ness. For a creature that was more effective in group actions (e.g. hunting) there would have been a strong evolutionary advantage to having an emotional investment in the success of the group. Hence much of the early use of this ability would have been to represent others in the group; when language was added, it would have enabled people to talk about each other. In Devlin's words, "Having arisen as a side-effect of off-line thinking, language was immediately hijacked to facilitate gossip." (Off-line thinking is used to mean representational thinking that doesn't result in or from actions in the immediate environment.)
Two particular items in the book are worth mentioning. One is a followup to some famous experiments done by child psychologist Piaget in the 1930's. Piaget thought he'd demonstrated that children don't acquire a fully-developed number sense till around six years old. More recent work has demonstrated that children are much smarter than Piaget realized: there was a subtle and fascinating methodological flaw in Piaget's experiment. The second item is a little test of logical reasoning, presented with four cards on a table. Even mathematicians, who will probably get the test right, may be surprised at the coda to the test, which forms one of the few methods of direct verification of Devlin's claim that everyone can do mathematics.
The case is well-argued, but one problem with theories like these is that there *are* so few ways of finding out if they're true. "The Math Gene" is reminiscent of Julian Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" in this way; a fascinating argument that we may never be able to test. However, it's thought-provoking and plausible, and left me, at least, convinced of its likely truth.
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