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

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

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by Keith Devlin

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A groundbreaking book about math and language, from the well-known NPR commentator Keith Devlin.  See more details below


A groundbreaking book about math and language, from the well-known NPR commentator Keith Devlin.

Editorial Reviews

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.

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Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Paperback Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.32(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are saying about this

Ian Stewart
. . . an instant antidote to math phobia and a pleasure to read. (Ian Stewart, author of (Nature's Numbers and Life's Other Secret)

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4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
AnnieBM More than 1 year ago
Devlin presents an interesting, well-thought out, and insightful hypothesis about mathematical thinking. Although I would argue with some of the details, there is much to be appreciated in his presentation. I think the hypothesis should be reformulated and investigated by the appropriate disciplines. I was particularly captured by his suggestion that mathematics is like gossip -- and I can agree. This image, this similarity takes mathematical thinking and numbers out of the realm of cold, hard, distant things and makes them approachable friends. I find this idea quite freeing. Recommended for those interested in brain evolution,thinking, mathematics, and for those who think they can't do mathematics -- it's just gossip.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I bought this book because it was to discuss why some people have a harder time doing math than others. Why do mathematicians find math so easy while the rest of us seem to struggle? While the book doesn't discuss much about an actual math 'gene' it does discuss evolutionary ideas about how humans developed a more complex ability to do mathematics than other species. While some of the reasoning may be pure conjecture, the ideas presented are thoroughly fascinating and well worth the read. Devlin also refers to the development of mathematical ability in children which is equally interesting for parents of young children.