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Is math innate to humans?

Posted by Don McLenaghen on February 21, 2011

Innate Knowledge

Tabula Rasa

An interesting controversy in philosophy, linguistics and psychology is whether or not numbers and counting is an innate human ability or something learnt. There is a certain portion of what we think of a consciousness that is strictly speaking instinct…our animal brains…but how much? One of the areas thought to be instinctual was our ability to count…that anyone anywhere at any time in history could count and understand simple numbers; such 1, 30, 523, etc. It seemed obvious, every society on the planet has a numbering system; the earliest evidence of humanity contains counting. The early ‘documents’ archaeologist find tend to be accounting forms of grain, wine or livestock. Everyone I now can count simple numbers and scientist only find exception in those with brain damages.

Previous research into an ‘isolated’ tribe in the Amazon showed this assumption to be wrong. MIT professor in 2008 published findings in the journal Cognition that showed this tribe had 1, 2 and many…anything larger than 2 was many…very large ‘quantities’ would be many many…etc. They also showed it was not that they lacked the language for numbers but the concept. When asked to count up from 1-10 (they were counting piranhas) they went 1,2,many BUT when they asked to count down 10-1, they discovered that the word used for “2” was first said, then eventually “1”…that the tribe did not use the ‘counting words’ to describe numbers but relative quantities. These results were seen as interesting but explained away by saying that these cultures were just too simple to have a more complex language for numbers…that they still had the innate concepts just lacked the words or the need to express it.


Math humour

This explanation however recently has been ruled out. In research, by Elizabet Spaepen published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, into a group of deaf Nicaraguans who did not learn Spanish or conventional sign language shows that they did not develop an innate counting system in spite of the fact they lived in a ‘modern’ numerate community. The study subjects were unique because of the political situation and other issues, a large number of deaf Nicaraguans did not learn traditional sign language but in isolated communes ‘for the deaf. There were attempts to teach them lip reading but this failed but being intelligent curious and inventive these children invented a sort of pidgin sign language…as it turned out one absent of counting numbers beyond three. Further, they did not develop the concepts of higher simple numbers later when they were reintegrated with the larger numeric society although they did learn the ‘words’.


This group had ‘numbers’ in their sign but not the concept associated with them. For example, one of the tests done was hand-bumps. One researcher would ‘bump’ hands a set number of times with the subject to repeat the number of bumps back. They found that numbers beyond three where not repeated back consistently. This correlated with the ‘numbers’ they did use for sign…these numbers were more indicative of relative quantity than actual counting.

Researches of course though maybe it was related to their deafness so they conducted research into the deaf taught traditional sign language. They did not find this deficit…that it was not deafness but the fact that this latter group grew up in a numeric society that seemed to account for their ability to understand simple counting numbers.

The take home message here is that what we thought to be an innate ability of humans seems to yet another thing we can chalk up to cultural learning. It seems our ability to understand the concept of larger counting numbers is learnt at an early age and from our culture.


2 Responses to “Is math innate to humans?”

  1. Rob said

    Yeah, there -are- cultures that have different number concepts and use them diferently: but they don’t count.


  2. zarah said

    Just getting caught up on your blogs, Don. It would be pretty difficult, given our propensity for acquiring goods in our society, if we didn’t have the ability to use numbers in the designation of quantity. Take Jay Leno for instance how would he keep track of his car collection, oh I know he could just say he had “many”!

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