The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip

( 1 )


A groundbreaking book about math and language, from the well-known NPR commentator Keith DevlinIf people are endowed with a "number instinct" similar to the "language instinct"-as recent research suggests-then why can't everyone do math? In The Math Gene, mathematician and popular writer Keith Devlin attacks both sides of this question. Devlin offers a breathtakingly new theory of language development that describes how language evolved in two stages and how its main purpose was not communication. Devlin goes on ...
See more details below
Available through our Marketplace sellers.
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (17) from $1.99   
  • New (1) from $196.80   
  • Used (16) from $1.99   
Sort by
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Note: Marketplace items are not eligible for any coupons and promotions
Seller since 2008

Feedback rating:



New — never opened or used in original packaging.

Like New — packaging may have been opened. A "Like New" item is suitable to give as a gift.

Very Good — may have minor signs of wear on packaging but item works perfectly and has no damage.

Good — item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Acceptable — item is in working order but may show signs of wear such as scratches or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Used — An item that has been opened and may show signs of wear. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Refurbished — A used item that has been renewed or updated and verified to be in proper working condition. Not necessarily completed by the original manufacturer.


Ships from: Chicago, IL

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Sort by
Sending request ...


A groundbreaking book about math and language, from the well-known NPR commentator Keith DevlinIf people are endowed with a "number instinct" similar to the "language instinct"-as recent research suggests-then why can't everyone do math? In The Math Gene, mathematician and popular writer Keith Devlin attacks both sides of this question. Devlin offers a breathtakingly new theory of language development that describes how language evolved in two stages and how its main purpose was not communication. Devlin goes on to show that the ability to think mathematically arose out of the same symbol-manipulating ability that was so crucial to the very first emergence of true language. Why, then, can't we do math as well as we speak? The answer, says Devlin, is that we can and do-we just don't recognize when we're using mathematical reasoning.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Whether he's instructing us about the mathematical skills of four month old babies, describing the deep structure of language or explaining where one of the theories of Jean Piaget went askew, Keith Devlin is lucid. The man who taught us that mathematics is the science of making the invisible visible knows that the keys to good science writing are clarity and simplicity. Of course, it helps that this subject matter is vital: One can't dispute the importance of improving our math skills or understanding the chicken and egg controversy of language evolution. Math Gene succeeds because the plainness of its exposition is match by the excitement of its ideas. Fine beach reading.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Recently, luminaries like Steven Pinker have shown lay audiences neat theories about how language works and how our "language instinct" evolved. In the same years, writers like David Berlinski have made higher math entertaining and accessible. Here, prolific math writer and NPR commentator Devlin (The Language of Mathematics) has joined these two strands of popular science writing. Using up-to-date cognitive psychology, along with the history of math, Devlin aims to unfold our "innate sense of number" and to show what it has to do with language. He also hopes, more ambitiously, to win readers over to his own hypothesis about how our language and math "instincts" arose. Experiments show that chimps, like us, "use symbols to denote numbers," though human toddlers are far better at it. Combining a number sense with symbolic abilities, we use abstractions to manipulate quantities, leading to arithmetic and potentially to calculus and number theory. After several stellar chapters devoted largely to psychology experiments, Devlin switches gears to higher math, giving examples of how abstract models describe concrete things--from rotating clock faces to rattlesnake skins. The book takes another sharp turn, into the stimulating but quite crowded field of hypotheses about how our brains came to be. While responsibly laying out several hypotheses, Devlin favors the idea that enhanced symbolic abilities let early hominids think "off-line," asking and answering "what if" questions about tools, predators, habitats or prey. Some may wish Devlin had written two books--one about math and language, the other about language and evolution; the former would likely ace the latter. Most readers, though, will appreciate the broad, accessible syntheses he does provide. 35 illus. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This book is not about mathematics or genetics or why some people are good at math and others are not. Rather, Devlin (Goodbye, Descartes) asks and attempts to answer the question, "How and why did human beings evolve the ability to do mathematics?" His point is that mathematics is more than arithmetic. Real mathematics involves making logical arguments about abstract objects. Devlin briefly outlines Chomsky's theory that we are all born with "hard-wired" linguistic ability. He then explains that the mental process of making logical connections between abstract objects and the mental process needed to construct sentences have the identical structure. Thus, we can see that the genetic heritage that gives us all the ability to communicate by language also gives us the ability to do mathematics. I am convinced that Devlin is correct, and, if you read this book, you will be, too. For all math and science collections.--Harold D. Shane, Baruch Coll. of CUNY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Exploring connections between mathematics and language, science teacher and popularizer Devlin (language and communication, Stanford U.) discusses the inner workings of the brain, the beauty of mathematical systems, the theories of Noam Chomsky, and a number of illustrations of how mathematics is used daily. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
I am hooked again. Mathematics is understandable.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465013463
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 12/28/1973
  • Pages: 352

Meet the Author

Keith  Devlin

Keith Devlin is the Dean of the School of Social Science at St. Mary's College, Moraga, California, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University. He is the author of 22 books, one interactive CD-ROM, and over 65 technical research papers in mathematics. His voice is heard regularly on National Public Radio, on such programs as "Weekend Edition," "Talk of the Nation," "Science Friday," "Sounds Like Science," and "To the Best of Our Knowledge." His previous books include Life by the Numbers, the companion to a PBS series that aired in April and May, 1998; Goodbye Descartes: The End of Logic; and The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible.


Odds are, John Grisham doesn’t get interview questions like this: "If you could meet any mathematician, who would it be?"

But author Keith Devlin does, this time from Discover magazine as part of a January 2001 article coinciding with the publication of his book The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip. His answer may go a long way toward explaining why he has managed to make the world of numbers not only understandable but also enjoyable to a segment of the population that can’t balance a checkbook without a net -- or backup from MIT.

“Isaac Newton,” Devlin told the inquiring minds at Discover. “He was a quarrelsome, egotistical person, but he also invented calculus. He did it, by the way, when he was a student at Cambridge. The Great Plague was going on, so the university was closed, and young Newton found himself without studies to do. Most 20-year-olds would think, ‘Whoopee! I’ll just have a good time.’ Newton went home and invented calculus.”

It is this same kind of passion for mathematics that has enabled Devlin, now the executive director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University, to persuade readers that arithmetic, geometry and calculus can be a bracing addition to the stack on the bedside table. In The Math Gene, he explains the “innate sense of number” that lives inside the human mind and how the development of mathematical thinking is closely bound to the development of language. In Goodbye, Descartes: The End of Logic and the Search for a New Cosmology of the Mind, he argues against the possibility of artificial intelligence, saying that computers are simply logic machines that cannot replicate the rational thought and communication that are part of human smarts. In his newest book, The Millennium Problems: The Seven Greatest Unsolved Mathematical Puzzles of Our Time, he explains a historic competition announced by a Cambridge, Massachusetts foundation in 2000: Anyone who could solve any one of seven of the most perplexing math problems of the current age would win $1 million.

In a 1999 review, the Economist noted that “Devlin succeeds both in giving us a glimpse of the internal beauty of the subject and in demonstrating its usefulness in the external world. The Language of Mathematics is lucidly written and richly illustrated, and remains accessible and enthusiastic throughout.”

On NPR’s Weekend Edition, where he has become a regular guest, Devlin is referred to simply as “The Math Guy,” or as host Scott Simon once put it “our white knight of the world of mathematics.”

And, going back to that provocative subtitle in The Math Gene, just how is math like gossip? “Mathematicians deal with a collection of objects -- numbers, triangles, groups, fields -- and ask questions like: ‘What is the relationship between Objects X and Y?. If X does this to Y, what will Y do back to X?’” he told Discover. “It's got plot, it's got characters, it's got relationships between them, and it's got life and emotion and passion and love and hate, a bit of everything you can find in a soap opera. On the other hand, a soap opera isn't going to get you to the moon and back. Mathematics can.”

Just don’t forget to carry the 1.

Good To Know

Devlin was the coauthor of the television special A Mathematical Mystery Tour, broadcast as part of the Nova series in 1984.

He once offered as proof of the human brain’s intuitive math skills the ability to judge speed and distance while driving and the ability to add up bowling scores.

Devlin once managed to explain the mathematical difference between a knot and a tangle to National Public Radio’s listeners.

Read More Show Less
    1. Hometown:
      Palo Alto, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      March 16, 1947
    2. Place of Birth:
      Hull, England
    1. Education:
      B.S., King's College, London, 1968; Ph.D., University of Bristol, 1971

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii
Acknowledgments ix
Prologue: The Wings of the Eagle xiii
1 A Mind for Mathematics 1
2 In the Beginning Is Number 15
3 Everybody Counts 39
4 What Is This Thing Called Mathematics? 71
5 Do Mathematicians Have Different Brains? 111
6 Born to Speak 145
7 The Brain That Grew and Learned to Talk 169
8 Out of Our Minds 195
9 Where Demons Lurk and Mathematicians Work 249
10 Roads Not Taken 283
Epilogue: How to Sell Soap 293
Appendix The Hidden Structure of Everyday Language 297
References 309
Index 317
Read More Show Less

Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
I agree with literary agent John Brockman's view that much of the real action in science today can be found in what he calls the Third Culture, where leading scientists break free of their particular disciplinary boundaries and try to develop new syntheses of scientific knowledge. The normal channels of publication and dissemination in science being narrowly focused on particular disciplines, a characteristic of the Third Culture is that most of the work is carried on in a highly public forum, through so-called "popular science" books and public electronic chat rooms such as Brockman's own The Edge. I devour as much of this stuff as I can keep up with. My own books Goodbye, Descartes and, more recently, The Math Gene are my own steps into the world of the Third Culture.

As a writer of popular science books on mathematics, I also read all the books by "my competition" to keep abreast of this small but growing field. (It will really be a field when universities establish professorial positions in the public understanding of mathematics. I shall probably apply for the first one.) The books that turned me on to mathematics as a teenager look very dated today. Although mathematical knowledge is unique in that, once established, a mathematical fact remains forever part of the accepted truth, nevertheless, both the kinds of mathematics that is done and the ways of approaching and presenting that mathematics change over time. The mathematics books I recommend to my nonmathematical friends these days include The Mathematical Experience by Davis and Hersh, Journey Through Genius by William Dunham, and Nature's Numbers by Ian Stewart, all written by professional mathematicians with a flair for the written word. Former science television writer Simon Singh's book Fermat's Enigma gives a good sense of what modern mathematical research is like and why some people choose to devote their lives to it. Another book by a nonmathematician that I like and often recommend to others is Against the Gods by Peter L. Bernstein, which shows how the mathematical theory of probability underpins much of modern society.

--Keith Devlin

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 1 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)