Our Evolutionary Number Heritage

19th January 2017

When you’re struggling with maths, and you don’t have the right support, it can really get to you. We’ve spoken to so many people, children and adults, who admit that failure in maths has made them feel stupid all their lives, even when they’re successful in other areas.

Nobody likes struggling, but maths is such a cumulative subject that students can quickly get left behind and this leads, understandably, to panic, brain freeze and sometimes complete aversion.

In the worst case scenario, people leave school thinking they ‘can’t do maths’ at all, and this can go on into their adult lives, as they continue avoiding maths because they firmly believe that the ability to do maths is not a skill you can learn, but a sheer impossibility for them. That maths itself is a mysterious, intangible and unnatural construct that only very clever or mathematically gifted people can really understand.

However, recent research strongly suggests that not only is every human capable of counting and having a sense of number, which is the foundation of our ability to do maths, that even our close cousins, primates, have evolved this ability as well.

Professor Jessica Cantlon

Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Jessica Cantlon has been working for years to understand how humans develop the concept of numbers, from simple counting to complex mathematical reasoning. During this research she has done key work with primates with PhD candidate Steve Ferrigno, and while working with baboons in 2013 they made an intriguing discovery. They were able to demonstrate that even juvenile baboons could tell the difference between large and small numbers of peanuts

This strongly indicated that primates possess a hardwired, evolved sense of number and consequently this is something all humans share.

However, it could be argued that the primates are not counting at all, but merely using their eyes to judge how much surface area each group of peanuts covered and choosing the pile with the largest surface area.

Professor Cantlon needed to find out. So she teamed up with Ferringo again and two coauthors— Rochester colleague Steven Piantadosi and Julian Jara-Ettinger from MIT.

They used a single non-verbal test based on an array of samples each with different numbers of differently sized dots, designed to produce the same challenge regardless of species or education.

Instead of saying larger or smaller, respondents chose between a star to symbolise a ‘small quantity’ and a diamond to represent a ‘large quantity’ (this system was also communicated non-verbally). The studies unique nature including it’s non-verbal nature means it could be helpful in testing non-verbal children in the future.

They tested three groups. Educated adults and children from North America; adult and child members of the Tsimane’ a tribe from the Bolivian rainforest characterised as having ‘low numeracy’; and Rhesus monkeys whose cognitive and neurological structures are similar to humans.

Amazingly each group, including the primates, showed a definite bias towards recognizing number over surface area, indicating that an innate sense of number really is an evolved quality. Human ability was superior, with those with more mathematical education unsurprisingly doing better than those from the remote tribe, but the monkeys scored well showing “that the spontaneous aspect of extracting numerical information likely has an evolutionary basis, because this has been seen across all humans and also with other primate species” as Ferrigno explained.

In plain English that means that even monkeys are born with the ability to do basic maths. This doesn’t mean monkeys have the capability to do long division or solve equations but it means that the human mind already had evolved a sense of number, way back in our evolution and that is why we all have the ability to a greater or lesser degree to perform ‘sophisticated’ maths.

Cantlon says the study shows “that the initial step toward becoming mathematically sophisticated likely had to do with focusing in on the number of objects, not just total mass or size” and that first step seems to have been taken while we were still in the trees.

Oh great, we hear you say, so when I’m struggling with maths I can’t do something that even a monkey can do? Are you calling me stupid or a monkey?!

No, in fact we’re trying to say the exact opposite.

Every time we do a mathematical calculation beyond counting a few peanuts we are already surpassing our initial evolved ability, we’ve already got that covered, we’ve mastered that and the good news is that because we are human, we all have the ability to take it so, so much further.

The next time you are staring at a seemingly simple maths problem and your brain just won’t do anything except scream at you...


Take a deep breath. You can do this.

You have the innate ability tucked away in your beautiful brain. Millions of years of evolution have gifted you and everyone else with this mathematical birthright, and if you take the time, make the effort, try looking at it another way - the only thing in your way is fear. Truly.

Maths is incredibly important to the human race – you don’t have to know how to do calculus but no one should have to go through life avoiding maths, denying that birthright that helped us survive for those millions of years.

Think of it this way. We no longer have a tail because as we evolved from monkeys, we didn’t need it any more.

We evolved a number sense along with the tail but we still have that, we never lost it, because it is still a vital important skill for our survival and success as a species. An ability to do maths, as Professor Cantlon explains is an important part of “how humans got to be the way they are” and we should all embrace our mathematical heritage with pride!

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