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

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Why is math so hard? And why, despite this difficulty, are some people so good at it? If there’s some inborn capacity for mathematical thinking—which there must be, otherwise no one could do it —why can’t we all do it well? Keith Devlin has answers to all these difficult questions, and in giving them shows us how mathematical ability evolved, why it’s a part of language ability, and how we can make better use of this innate talent.He also offers a breathtakingly new theory of language development—that language ...
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The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved And Why Numbers Are Like Gossip

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Why is math so hard? And why, despite this difficulty, are some people so good at it? If there’s some inborn capacity for mathematical thinking—which there must be, otherwise no one could do it —why can’t we all do it well? Keith Devlin has answers to all these difficult questions, and in giving them shows us how mathematical ability evolved, why it’s a part of language ability, and how we can make better use of this innate talent.He also offers a breathtakingly new theory of language development—that language evolved in two stages, and its main purpose was not communication—to show that the ability to think mathematically arose out of the same symbol-manipulating ability that was so crucial to the emergence of true language. Why, then, can’t we do math as well as we can speak? The answer, says Devlin, is that we can and do—we just don’t recognize when we’re using mathematical reasoning.
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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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465016198
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: First Paperback Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 847,828
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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.

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    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
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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

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 29, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    Math is Gossip

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2002

    Never thought I would enjoy reading a book about math

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 16, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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