July 6, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

How the Animals Learned to Count

Any evolutionary article that begins with “How…” should be checked for Kipling-style just-so storytelling.  Characteristics to watch for include (1) fanciful speculation without evidence: i.e., “made-up” tales that provide an answer to a childish question without appeal to rigorous proof, and (2) statements made with dogmatic authority, like a parent would explain to a child why something is “just so” because he or she says so.  An article in New Scientist provides one opportunity: “How Numeracy Evolved.”  The article is about basic numerical faculties present in lower animals that might provide clues for how humans gained their expertise at mathematics.
    The article discusses experiments with monkeys, salamanders, mosquitofish, bees, chicks and horses.  It appears that these animals have a rudimentary ability to do arithmetic: to add and subtract numbers, and even perceive ratios, up to a certain level.  Here’s how the concept of evolution was employed to account for the counting:

  1. …the skills of this growing mathematical menagerie resemble our own innate abilities.  Could basic mathematics have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago?
  2. This ancient cognitive capacity even seems to dictate the way we humans understand written numbers.
  3. Together, the results suggest that the two abilities – to precisely identify small numbers and to estimate the relative size of large numbers – have deep roots in our evolutionary history
  4. “There’s a good chance that this thing goes way back,” says Marc Hauser, a psychologist at Harvard University, who has led many of the primate studies.
  5. This ability may date back to even more primitive organisms than fish.
  6. So it seems that even our most distant relatives have some concept of number, but these studies still don’t show whether animals learn to count through training, or whether they are born with the skills already intact.  If the latter is true, it would suggest there was a strong evolutionary advantage to a mathematical mind.  Proof that this may be the case has emerged from an experiment testing the mathematical ability of three and four-day-old chicks….
  7. This suggests that numeracy is an innate ability in many animals that does not require training.  Why these skills evolved is not hard to imagine, since it would help almost any animal forage for food, says Gallistel…
  8. Exactly how ancient these skills are is difficult to determine, however.  Just because bees, salamanders, fish and humans share similarities in their ability to detect number, it does not necessarily mean they all inherited the talent from a common ancestor.
  9. Just as bat and bird wings evolved separately yet work using the same fundamental principles, numerical representation may have developed in many separate instances.  Brannon agrees: “We clearly must be talking about convergent evolution or something that is so primal that it traces back to millions and millions of years ago.
  10. Unlike bony wings, number-crunching brains leave little trace in the fossil record.  Only by studying the numerical abilities of more and more creatures using standardised procedures can we hope to understand the basic preconditions for the evolution of number.

Results: empirical experiments about numerical abilities in animals were cited, but they were all interpreted with respect to unobservables – millions of years, and presumed selective advantages of evolution, without any explanation of how mutations and natural selection would have produced these abilities.

Those last two quotes clinch it, don’t they?  We were just fed a just-so story, with Darwin uttering the magic word, Evolution. Evolution produces counting minds out of chemicals.  Like a force that pervades the universe, Evolution brings forth the seemingly impossible.  Take any ability, any function, any wonder of nature observable today, and a backward glance will show the hand of Evolution was at work.  And when ordinary Evolution seems insufficient to bring about the Emergence of whatever needs to be explained, the magic words must be uttered multiple times till it clicks into place: Convergent Evolution.
    Evolution serves the same purpose the Greek gods did in ancient cultures.  They are convenient placeholders beyond the pale for pagan parents to use in telling their pagan children how things came to be.  Since the gods of Evolution inhabit the Mt. Olympus of Imagination, storytellers are free to invent dramatic tales about them, make them seem human yet divine, and yet keep them mysterious enough to keep the populace in a state of numinous awe so they stay complacent and don’t revolt.  The thought police prowl about rounding up and silencing heretics to ensure that only the official story is heard.
    Ironic, isn’t it, that today’s priests of the evolutionary pantheon fancy themselves as the debunkers of the supernatural and the defenders of rationality.  Try your hand at their game.  Make up a story about How the Darwinist Got Its Imagination.  Throw in a few millions of years so that it sounds authentic.

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