Mind Matters Natural and Artificial Intelligence News and Analysis

TagChimpanzees (number sense)

Close up of math formulas on a blackboard

Is Our “Number Sense” Biology, Culture — or Something Else?

It’s a surprisingly controversial question with a — perhaps unsettling — answer

British science writer Philip Ball, author of How to Grow a Human, offers an even-handed account of a controversy on the origin of our ability to understand numbers (numeracy). Numeracy is the beginning of mathematics, the most abstract of all human pursuits. It isn’t possible to get very far in mathematics without some ability to abstract. Ball cites as an example the difference between 152 and 153. Many life forms, competing for a pile of food items, can distinguish between 2 and 3. But distinguishing between 152 and 153 clearly requires abstraction. It’s the same principle as the chiliagon, a geometric figure like a triangle except that it has 1000 sides. A triangle can be envisioned concretely. A chiliagon can…