The Cultural Origins of Symbolic Numbe

It is popular in psychology to hypothesize that representations of exact number are innately determined—inparticular, that biology has endowed humans with a system for manipulating quantities which formsthe primary representational substrate for our numerical and mathematical concepts. While thisperspective has been important for advancing empirical work in animal and child cognition, herewe examine six natural predictions of strong numerical nativism from a multidisciplinary perspective,andfind each to be at odds with evidence from anthropology and developmental science. In particular,the history of number reveals characteristics that are inconsistent with biological determinism ofnumerical concepts, including a lack of number systems across some human groups and remarkablevariability in the form of numerical systems that do emerge. Instead, this literature highlights theimportance of economic and social factors in constructing fundamentally new cognitive systems toachieve culturally specific goals.

Casey Tang