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Tribes Without Names For Numbers Cannot Count
Nature ^ | 8-19-2004 | Helen Pearson

Posted on 08/21/2004 3:01:00 PM PDT by blam

Published online: 19 August 2004

Tribe without names for numbers cannot count

Helen Pearson

Amazon study fuels debate on whether the concept of numbers is innate.

Can a knowledge of numbers determine the way we think?

© Alamy

A study of an Amazonian tribe is stoking fierce debate about whether people can count without numbers.

Psychologists, anthropologists and linguists have long wondered whether animals, young children or certain cultures can conceptualize numbers without the language to describe them.

To tackle the issue, behavioural researcher Peter Gordon of Columbia University in New York journeyed into the Amazon. He carried out studies with the Pirahã tribe, a hunter-gatherer group of about 200 people, whose counting system consists of words which mean, approximately, 'one', 'two' and 'many'.

Gordon designed a series of tasks to examine whether tribe members could precisely count and conceive of numbers beyond one or two, even if they lacked the words. For example, he asked them to look at a group of batteries and line up a matching amount.

The tribe members struggled to perform these tasks accurately after the numbers were greater than three, Gordon reports in Science1; and their performance got worse the higher the numbers climbed. "They couldn't keep track at all," he says.

Opposing views

Other researchers in the field have welcomed the study. But they disagree about what it means. Psychologist Charles Gallistel, at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, says that the Pirahã simply may not recognize when one quantity of items exactly equals another, so they have trouble with matching tasks. He argues that people do possess an innate, non-verbal ability to conceive of all numbers, and that language simply helps them to refine it.

Psychologist Susan Carey of Harvard University in Massachusetts argues the opposite: she says we lack an innate ability to count beyond very small numbers, and that the Pirahã difficulty with numbers proves it. "It's a spectacular finding," she says.

Carey and other researchers believe that children and some animals are born with two basic types of 'counting' but that these are limited. First, they can recognize one, two or three objects by recording an image in their memory. Second, they can make estimates of larger numbers, such as 'about twenty'. Carey believes that the Pirahã rely on these innate systems.

Whorf hypothesis

On a broader level, the study also addresses a long standing and controversial hypothesis developed by Benjamin Lee Whorf in the late 1930s: that language can determine the way we think or what we are able to think.

But Gordon's study is one of the best examples in which language allows people to think something completely new, says cognitive psychologist Lisa Feigenson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. "This is by far the strongest piece of evidence," she says. In this case, a lack of language seems to prevent the Pirahã from thinking about larger numbers, she says.

However, the latest study will not resolve the debate about whether language can shape thought in other examples, points out Feigenson. "I think the jury is still out," she says.


TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: cannot; count; ggg; godsgravesglyphs; innumeracy; names; numbers; tribe; without

1 posted on 08/21/2004 3:01:01 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam
The tribe members struggled to perform these tasks accurately after the numbers were greater than three, Gordon reports in Science1; and their performance got worse the higher the numbers climbed. "They couldn't keep track at all," he says.

Florida. Democrats. 'Nuff Said. :)

2 posted on 08/21/2004 3:03:25 PM PDT by KentTrappedInLiberalSeattle (I feel more and more like a revolted Charlton Heston, witnessing ape society for the very first time)
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To: SunkenCiv

GGG Ping.


3 posted on 08/21/2004 3:05:12 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam

BTTT


4 posted on 08/21/2004 3:07:10 PM PDT by Fiddlstix (This Tagline for sale. (Presented by TagLines R US))
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To: blam

fascinating.


5 posted on 08/21/2004 3:13:08 PM PDT by lepton ("It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into"--Jonathan Swift)
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To: blam
The tribe members struggled to perform these tasks accurately after the numbers were greater than three, Gordon reports in Science1; and their performance got worse the higher the numbers climbed. "They couldn't keep track at all," he says.

However, many of them were still able to obtain employment with the General Accounting Office.

6 posted on 08/21/2004 3:15:00 PM PDT by GreenHornet
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To: blam

And, by some curious coincidence, an enormous proportion of these tribes, upon emigrating to the United States, settle in or near Washingtion, D.C. and go to work for either GAO or CBO.


7 posted on 08/21/2004 3:19:22 PM PDT by SAJ (For today, write the SFV 7700 puts. Next week, Thu or Fri, write LBX calls 50-70 dollars OOM.)
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To: blam

Did Arthur Anderson outsource any of its Enron work to Brazil?


8 posted on 08/21/2004 3:19:50 PM PDT by Loyalist
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To: GreenHornet

GMTA...too quick for me (g!)


9 posted on 08/21/2004 3:19:59 PM PDT by SAJ (For today, write the SFV 7700 puts. Next week, Thu or Fri, write LBX calls 50-70 dollars OOM.)
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To: blam

Who cares? These tribesmen are not being called upon to do m odern mathematics...nothing inb their daily lives requires much of anything that would look like modern education....Wjat I want to know is HOW MUCH of my money went for this ridiculous research? Eskimos have many more names for snow than most English speakers, Navaho and other southwest Indians have many more terms for rain than most English speakers....All that says is one language has different uses and nuances....This is a ho hum of the highest order...academia gone wild


10 posted on 08/21/2004 3:20:43 PM PDT by jnarcus
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To: SAJ

Then again, maybe we're onto something here!


11 posted on 08/21/2004 3:27:33 PM PDT by GreenHornet
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To: blam
the Pirahã simply may not recognize when one quantity of items exactly equals another

What, they can't see ?

I am convinced that intelligence is malleable, that if I.Q. tests were given these people would be low I.Q.

But if their children were raised in high culture homes in developed countries, their I.Q.s would rise.

Brain stimulation.

12 posted on 08/21/2004 3:28:27 PM PDT by happygrl
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To: happygrl; aculeus; dighton; Lijahsbubbe
A study of an Amazonian tribe is stoking fierce debate about whether people can count without numbers.

Send in the bureaucrats. That'll teach 'em.

13 posted on 08/21/2004 3:33:46 PM PDT by Thinkin' Gal
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To: blam

Seems like a silly debate to me. Surely these people have a ''concept'' of how many little heads will appear at the dinner table and, thus, how many rabbits & carrots need to go in the stew pot to feed them.


14 posted on 08/21/2004 3:34:35 PM PDT by elli1
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To: blam

The same thing is true regarding color. There are tribal people who use the same word for blue and green and cannot differntiate between the two colors as a result.

Word describe concept and ideas. Without the ability to put a name to an object, the object cannot be conceptualized.


15 posted on 08/21/2004 3:38:38 PM PDT by ShandaLear (Swifties v. MoveOn.org: David slays Goliath)
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To: blam
I remember reading in the book "Philosophy in the Flesh" by Lakoff and Johnson about a tribe that reversed the metaphor of the past being behind you and the future in front of you.

Because of this reversal these people had a completely different concept of ideas like ancestors, prediction, death, birth, and many other things.

16 posted on 08/21/2004 3:41:26 PM PDT by avg_freeper (Gunga galunga. Gunga, gunga galunga)
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To: blam
Butthead: "I hate numbers."

Beavis: "Heh, heh, yeah, there's like to many of 'em!"

17 posted on 08/21/2004 3:46:08 PM PDT by buccaneer81 (Rick Nash will score 50 goals this season ( if there is a season)
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To: Thinkin' Gal; happygrl; dighton; Lijahsbubbe
A study of an Amazonian tribe is stoking fierce debate about whether people can count without numbers.

When are the researchers going to address really challenging problems?

Such as, do lepers who have lost one or more digits to their disease switch to something other than a base-10 numeric system?

18 posted on 08/21/2004 4:13:03 PM PDT by aculeus
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To: blam

I wonder if there is not some type of cultural effect here, though. Certainly, if two guys went out hunting, and one came back with three squirrels(or whatever), and the other came back with, say, seven, wouldn't they innately realize how one did much better than the other?

Interesting study, no matter what the outcome.


19 posted on 08/21/2004 4:18:30 PM PDT by djf
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To: blam

I have interacted with a number of illiterate people who could not do arithmetic or write any numbers.

They could however all count money.


20 posted on 08/21/2004 4:24:31 PM PDT by bert (Peace is only halftime !)
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To: djf

And as an interesting aside, years ago I read a book by a fellow who had gone down and spent a few years with the Yanamamo tribe. He became very accepted by them, learned the language, and eventually married a native Yanamamo woman.

IIRC, he brought her back to the US, and she was totally disfunctional. Couldn't understand even simple concepts like WALK/DON'T WALK at street corners. So impaired, that she eventually had to return to the Amazon jungle.


21 posted on 08/21/2004 4:27:22 PM PDT by djf
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To: blam
Maybe they picked the stupidest tribe members to do the "series of tasks".

22 posted on 08/21/2004 4:53:36 PM PDT by William Terrell (Individuals can exist without government but government can't exist without individuals.)
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To: blam; FairOpinion; Ernest_at_the_Beach; SunkenCiv; 24Karet; A.J.Armitage; abner; adam_az; ...
Thanks Blam.

I once read a story about a tribe somewhere in the world which based its numbering system on the dogs the people kept. They counted things by the number of legs on the dogs, using a base 4 system. I forget what the individual legs were called. Our number four was "doggy-one", eight was "doggy-two", twelve was "doggy-three", and sixteen was "one houndred".

[as 'Civ waits for the laughter, all he hears from the darkened auditorium are crickets]

Many thanks to Roger Wagner, an old-timer Apple II programmer extraordinaire, whose joke I just mangled. ;'D
Please FREEPMAIL me if you want on, off, or alter the "Gods, Graves, Glyphs" PING list --
Archaeology/Anthropology/Ancient Cultures/Artifacts/Antiquities, etc.
The GGG Digest
-- Gods, Graves, Glyphs (alpha order)

23 posted on 08/21/2004 5:07:34 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Unlike some people, I have a profile. Okay, maybe it's a little large...)
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To: ValerieUSA
There is, of course a name (and a website) for this. :') I have had this book for years (bought it as a remainder) but have never read it.

Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences Innumeracy:
Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences

by John Allen Paulos


24 posted on 08/21/2004 5:11:36 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Unlike some people, I have a profile. Okay, maybe it's a little large...)
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To: blam
Crows can count to six. My neighbors lost count at four. Remember Georg Gamov's book One, Two, Three, Infinity?
25 posted on 08/21/2004 5:12:41 PM PDT by RightWhale (Withdraw from the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty and establish property rights)
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To: RightWhale
"Remember Georg Gamov's book One, Two, Three, Infinity?"

Nope, sure don't.

26 posted on 08/21/2004 6:12:55 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam
This tribe also has the simplest language known.
27 posted on 08/21/2004 6:23:54 PM PDT by JohnBovenmyer (I)
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To: SunkenCiv

That is more than just a story. The neighboting tribe counted the tail as a leg, and used base-5.

They were continually quarelling, over territory, food, and women. This lead to an arms race, with disastrous consequences if it didn't end. Finally, during a truce, they agreed to a Strategic Spear Reduction Treaty.

The problem, was neither understood the other's numerical system, which led, first to acussation of cheating; then, to full scale warfare.

Sadly, both sides were were wiped out by mutually assured destruction.

Where they lived is now just a desert, with wind whistling through caves, playing an aeolian dirge for them.


28 posted on 08/21/2004 6:41:32 PM PDT by ApplegateRanch (The world needs more horses, and fewer Jackasses!)
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To: blam

Noam Chomsky, call your office...


29 posted on 08/21/2004 7:02:15 PM PDT by garbanzo (Free people will set the course of history)
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To: blam

The demonrats are working to amend the motor/voter law so that these people can vote for their tax plans.


30 posted on 08/21/2004 7:15:39 PM PDT by fella
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To: blam

The Whorf hyphothesis:

"Perhaps today *is* a good day to die!"

Whoops, wrong Whorf...


31 posted on 08/21/2004 7:18:21 PM PDT by PLMerite ("Unarmed, one can only flee from Evil. But Evil isn't overcome by fleeing from it." Jeff Cooper)
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To: avg_freeper
If I'm not mistaken, the Greeks also conceived of the past as before them and the future behind them, because you can see in front of you and can remember the past, but can't see behind you and can't predict the future. I can't imagine how such a reversal would change your ideas about ancestors, death, etc. We're clearly not walking toward the past. We're "walking backward", only seeing where we were, not where we're going.
32 posted on 08/21/2004 8:19:06 PM PDT by A.J.Armitage (http://calvinist-libertarians.blogspot.com/)
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To: ApplegateRanch
At the peace conference they ordered pizza, and couldn't decide how many pieces... uh, never mind. ;')
33 posted on 08/21/2004 8:50:26 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Unlike some people, I have a profile. Okay, maybe it's a little large...)
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To: RightWhale
Remember Georg Gamov's book One, Two, Three, Infinity?

It takes a while to finish that last chapter though.

34 posted on 08/21/2004 9:59:13 PM PDT by Doctor Stochastic (Vegetabilisch = chaotisch is der Charakter der Modernen. - Friedrich Schlegel)
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To: blam; Dajjal; yonif; nuconvert; JohnBovenmyer

Maybe we have something else here as well. In this description of the research http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-08/tccu-soo081804.php it is stated
"Their skill levels were similar to those in pre-linguistic infants, monkeys, birds and rodents, and appeared to correlate to recent brain imaging studies indicating a different sort of numerical competence that seems to be immune to numerical language deprivation. Interestingly, Gordon noted, while Pirahã adults had difficulty learning larger numbers, Piraha children did not."

Benjamin Lee Whorf's theory is that language can determine the nature and content of thought. According to this there are concepts in one culture that people of another culture simply cannot understand because their language has no words for it.

Maybe this is the reason for the slow development of modernity and democracy in the Arab world?


35 posted on 08/21/2004 11:54:39 PM PDT by AdmSmith
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To: AdmSmith

Here is more about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/4110/whorf.html


36 posted on 08/22/2004 12:08:34 AM PDT by AdmSmith
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To: William Terrell
Maybe they picked the stupidest tribe members to do the "series of tasks".

Hey... ease up on these guys. Obviously they know that 1 = Pee, and 2 = Poop ... thus everything else is totally insignificant !!! ;-))

.

37 posted on 08/22/2004 1:20:46 AM PDT by GeekDejure ( LOL = Liberals Obey Lucifer !!!)
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To: AdmSmith; ShandaLear

And people blind from birth don't really know what 'green' is.


38 posted on 08/22/2004 5:23:15 AM PDT by nuconvert (Everyone has a photographic memory. Some don't have film.)
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To: elli1; AdmSmith

LOL.
Maybe they never have more than 3 people at dinner.


39 posted on 08/22/2004 5:26:28 AM PDT by nuconvert (Everyone has a photographic memory. Some don't have film.)
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To: elli1; AdmSmith

Or maybe they always have lots of leftovers


40 posted on 08/22/2004 5:32:13 AM PDT by nuconvert (Everyone has a photographic memory. Some don't have film.)
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To: AdmSmith

Piaget had proved long ago that there are certain things, that if you don't learn them by a certain critical age, you lose them forever.

From a cultural perspective, this is tremendously interesting. I imagine that the people who live there will, by the age of ten or so, see and know just about everything they ever will. They've seen the edible and inedible plants. They've seen the forms of wildlife and their habitat. They've seen the patterns of the weather (rain and sun, parts of the Amazon rain daily, 140 inches or more per year)

So their capacity to learn new things probably drops almost to zero when they are a young adult.


41 posted on 08/22/2004 11:23:06 AM PDT by djf
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To: AdmSmith

Fascinating article. Thanks for the ping & link in #36!


42 posted on 08/22/2004 12:35:12 PM PDT by Dajjal ("I wish they had a delete button on LexisNexis." -- John F'n Kerry 6/1/03)
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To: RightWhale; AdmSmith
Remember George Gamow's book One, Two, Three, Infinity?

I remember Gamow's book. Excellent. Another recent book is The Nothing That Is by Robert Kaplan, about what a revolutionary concept "zero" was.

43 posted on 08/22/2004 12:45:54 PM PDT by Dajjal ("I wish they had a delete button on LexisNexis." -- John F'n Kerry 6/1/03)
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To: Dajjal
Looks like a good new one is Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos.
44 posted on 08/22/2004 12:52:24 PM PDT by RightWhale (Withdraw from the 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty and establish property rights)
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To: Thinkin' Gal
Send in the bureaucrats

Yeah. I bet if they were getting welfare checks, they'd learn to count real quick.

45 posted on 08/23/2004 10:57:27 AM PDT by happygrl
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To: aculeus
I believe you're on to something.

Perhaps these Amazonians are utilizing a "limb-based" mathmatics, instead of a digital one.

46 posted on 08/23/2004 11:00:56 AM PDT by happygrl
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