Skip to comments.Tribes Without Names For Numbers Cannot Count
Posted on 08/21/2004 3:01:00 PM PDT by blam
Published online: 19 August 2004
Tribe without names for numbers cannot count
Amazon study fuels debate on whether the concept of numbers is innate.
Can a knowledge of numbers determine the way we think?
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.
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.
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.
Florida. Democrats. 'Nuff Said. :)
However, many of them were still able to obtain employment with the General Accounting Office.
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.
Did Arthur Anderson outsource any of its Enron work to Brazil?
GMTA...too quick for me (g!)
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
Then again, maybe we're onto something here!
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.
Send in the bureaucrats. That'll teach 'em.
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.
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.
Because of this reversal these people had a completely different concept of ideas like ancestors, prediction, death, birth, and many other things.
Beavis: "Heh, heh, yeah, there's like to many of 'em!"
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?
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.
I have interacted with a number of illiterate people who could not do arithmetic or write any numbers.
They could however all count money.
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.
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)
Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
by John Allen Paulos
Nope, sure don't.
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.
Noam Chomsky, call your office...
The demonrats are working to amend the motor/voter law so that these people can vote for their tax plans.
The Whorf hyphothesis:
"Perhaps today *is* a good day to die!"
Whoops, wrong Whorf...
It takes a while to finish that last chapter though.
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?
Here is more about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
Hey... ease up on these guys. Obviously they know that 1 = Pee, and 2 = Poop ... thus everything else is totally insignificant !!! ;-))
And people blind from birth don't really know what 'green' is.
Maybe they never have more than 3 people at dinner.
Or maybe they always have lots of leftovers
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.
Fascinating article. Thanks for the ping & link in #36!
I remember Gamow's book. Excellent. Another recent book is The Nothing That Is by Robert Kaplan, about what a revolutionary concept "zero" was.
Yeah. I bet if they were getting welfare checks, they'd learn to count real quick.
Perhaps these Amazonians are utilizing a "limb-based" mathmatics, instead of a digital one.