The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip

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9780465016181: The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip

If people are endowed with a "number instinct" similar to the "language instinct"—as recent research suggests—then why can't everyone do math? In The Math Gene, mathematician and popular writer Keith Devlin attacks both sides of this question.Devlin offers a breathtakingly new theory of language development that describes how language evolved in two stages and how its main purpose was not communication. Devlin goes on to show that the ability to think mathematically arose out of the same symbol-manipulating ability that was so crucial to the very first emergence of true language.Why, then, can't we do math as well as we speak? The answer, says Devlin, is that we can and do—we just don't recognize when we're using mathematical reasoning.

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Review:

For many, the mere word "mathematics" is enough to conjure memories of incomprehension at school, and fear and loathing ever afterward. Countless otherwise well-educated people see mathematics as the skeleton in their intellectual closet--the one key subject demanding a talent that they so obviously did not possess.

Or so it seems to anyone who has felt very much on the outside of the subject. British mathematician Keith Devlin is certainly on the inside, and in The Math Gene, he has wonderful news for everyone: we can all join him there. For Devlin argues that we all possess the ability to cope with mathematics--if only we recognize what's required. While a number of recent books, notably Stanislas Dehaene's The Number Sense, have focused on numerical ability, the scope of Devlin's book is much larger. He examines the evidence that we all possess, if not literally a gene, then at least an inherent ability not just for arithmetic but for real mathematics: algebra, calculus, and the rest. Devlin even puts forward a Darwinian explanation for the origin of this ability, based on the idea that being able to handle abstract ideas and relationships confers key evolutionary advantages.

Mathematics merely involves a relatively high level of abstraction--but one we can all cope with, if we work at it. "Doing mathematics is very much like running a marathon," writes Devlin. "It does not require any special talent, and 'finishing' is largely a matter of wanting to succeed."

In its wealth of wonderful examples supporting the central argument, The Math Gene bears comparison with Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, and its plain common sense about this most misunderstood of subjects is inspirational. Thoroughly recommended for anyone seeking to rid their intellectual closet of the skeleton of mathematical "incompetence." --Robert Matthews, Amazon.co.uk

About the Author:

Keith Devlin is the Dean of the School of Science at St. Mary's College, Moraga, California, and a Senior Researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University. He is the author of 22 books, one interactive CD-ROM, and over 65 technical research papers in mathematics. His voice is heard regularly on National Public Radio, on such programs as "Weekend Edition," "Talk of the Nation," "Science Friday," "Sounds Like Science," and "To the Best of Our Knowledge." His previous books include Life by the Numbers, the companion to a PBS series that aired in April and May, 1998; Goodbye Descartes: The End of Logic; and The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible.

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