A Numberless World

An article published by Caleb Everett Andrew in the newsletter Live Science talks about anumeric cultures or cultures where numbers are non-existent. It starts out by telling the reader that as one reads the article one is probably aware of: the date, the time, your age, weight, bank account balance, etc. This is our social reality, numbers and quantities play a big role in our lives. However, the use of numbers for quantification is a social mutation, making numeric cultures the abnormal ones, at least in a historic sense.

A picture of the Piraha (culture without numbers) who live along the banks of the Maici River in the Amazon. Credit here.

If means of quantification are seen through the lens of abnormality then these numberless cultures become normal. Societies whose cultures have numbers had to give their children these cognitive tools, which makes sense since all of us spent the better part of elementary school learning what numbers were and how to use them. To further solidify this a research paper by Susan Carey published by the National Institute of Health explores the concept of the natural number and concludes that natural numbers are a human construction as a response to allow for the representation of thoughts that are unthinkable without them (science and theory). This means that as natural as numbers may feel to you, they are not.

Naturally, our brains are wired to recognize abstract quantities. For instance, we know the difference between two apples and twenty apples. Cultures without numbers ‘quantify’ things by saying theres a few, some, or a lot. Studies have shown that adults in anumeric cultures have difficulty recalling and differentiating quantities as low as four.

Anumeric cultures gives insight into how diverse our global linguist culture is and how things we believe to be universal truths are not.

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