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.
A fascinating book.
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.
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.
In this multi-disciplinary investigation, anthropologist Caleb Everett examines the seemingly limitless possibilities and innovations made possible by the evolution of number systems.
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.
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.
- 2018, Winner of the PROSE Awards
- 312 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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