Is there life without math?

[Note:  This item comes from friend Bob Frankston.  DLH]

Is there life without math?
By Kelly Kasulis
Apr 28 2017

Inside of an open hut overlooking Amazon basin’s Maici River, the 5-year-old son of two Christian missionaries watched as his parents tallied numbers on a board, trying to teach a group of adults how to count. “I remember being puzzled — these people were smarter than me, and yet they were just totally flummoxed by counting,” said Caleb Everett, now 40 years old and an anthropological linguist. “I coincidentally happened to be spending my time as a kid with one of the few anumeric groups in the world.”

The Pirahã language has no words for exact integer numbers, an exceedingly rare linguistic evolution. Furthermore, research has found, the Pirahã people simply don’t count things. 

Everett’s time with the tribe has led him to conclude that, though some cultures don’t find use in numbers, they’re still one of the greatest inventions in history, right next to cooking, stone tools, and the wheel. He makes the case in his new book, “Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures.”

There’s a long list of things that numbers enable, their ubiquity as a “human invention” hints at a darker tale of colonization — and a fear that a life without digits may soon be impossible. “As cultures are forced to have contact, they learn these things,” Everett said. “There’s not that many cultures like this anymore, and there won’t be so many much longer.”

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There are about 700 Pirahã, all hunter-gatherers, who use words that translate to a vague “few” or “many,” participating in a “tit for tat” bargaining system, according to Peter Gordon, an associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University. “They live a very simple life,” he said. “There’s nothing they really have to count.” 

Contact between numbered and numberless societies has always come with an imbalance of power. Records from the 1800s show European traders scamming the nearly numberless Munduruku people, and, in recent years, some tribes have become beneficiaries (and possible victims) of a Brazilian government welfare system that pulls tribal populations into the cash economy by giving them money. “You get these old ladies who go into towns they haven’t set foot in before, who don’t speak Portuguese, who get ripped off right and left,” said Patience Epps, a professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the Hup people, another population with a limited number system.

But numbers are contagious. Social interaction and the allure of a market economy can spread counting systems like “cognitive fire,” Everett writes.



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