Do You Know Numbers?

By Michael R. Malone

Do You Know Numbers?

By Michael R. Malone
Numbers and the Making of Us by Caleb Everett, professor and chair of the University of Miami's Anthropology Department, named a “Top 10 Science Book”

“Survival is not easy,” writes Caleb Everett, professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology, as the opening line of the prologue to his newest book, recently named a “Ten Best Science Books of 2017” by the Smithsonian Institution.

Numbers and the Making of Us posits that numbers are a relatively recent cultural invention and explores how that understanding has reshaped our lives, especially in terms of the development of agriculture, so reliant on numbers.

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“Humans invented numbers—all the research shows that we don’t get there [comprehending numbers] naturally,” said Everett, an anthropological linguist. “It seems easy for us, but we’ve all been coaxed into this understanding.” That understanding is aided by the anthropological concept known as “ratcheting.” In the same way that a ratchet tool adds torque to turn, we layer on or torque in new batches of knowledge generation by generation. The benefit is that we don’t have to keep learning the same things over and over.

Everett joined the University faculty in 2007. Previously, while pursuing his doctorate at Rice University, he spent most of his time in the field—in the Amazonia region of South America—researching what would eventually become the basis of his book: indigenous peoples such as the Piraha and Karitiana, whose sense of numbers differs profoundly from most cultures.  

Amazonia was not an unfamiliar terrain for him.

The son of missionary parents, Everett grew up in Brazil’s Amazonia, and experienced the teeth-clenching hard truth of his opening prologue line.

“My parents were very loving but had that missionary zeal,” he said. “As a kid, we had lots of encounters with risk—leaks in the boat in the middle of the jungle, times when we all faced death.” Everett caught meningitis and nearly died; both his sisters contracted malaria.

He went on to attend the University of Pittsburgh, where his father, Daniel Everett, chaired the linguistics department. By his own admission, Everett did well—“I got good grades and all that”—but ended his undergrad studies “a bit aimless.” He took a job in finance, just long enough to know that he wasn’t cut out for work in an office.

Spending a “Semester at Sea” opened his eyes to new horizons, and his post-grad work helped develop his fascination with the interaction of language, thought, culture, and the environment.

A few years after joining the U, in 2015, he again signed on for “Semester at Sea,” this time teaching students from the U and other schools.

“An experience like that can be extremely valuable—you get snapshots, a few days in countries around the world,” he said, adding, “and it allowed me to fulfill a promise to take my wife and young son on a boat around the world with me.”  

While on the sea trip, his dean notified Everett that he was nominating him for an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship, an award that provides up to $200,000 to recipients and supports a year or two of full-time research and writing, leading to the publication of a book on a science or humanities topic that help to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Everett needed to write a lengthy application and deliver it within a few weeks. He completed the assignment, but imagined his chances as quite slim.

“It was a really nice surprise,” he said to hear he’d been named an inaugural fellow for the prestigious award.

Numbers and the Making of Us was half written by then; the award gave him time and space to not only finish but also to launch work on a next book.

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Everett appreciates the nurturing environment for his teaching and research he’s found at the University. “The U has been an ideal launching pad for me. I’ve been given the freedom to work on the projects that really interest me."

Gratitude is in fact the message that he hopes readers might take from his book.

“I hope the book is an interesting read for people,” Everett said, “but even more that readers experience a humbling sense of appreciation.

“We are the benefactors of the work of so many inventors and cognitive tools that we take for granted,” he continued. “There’s something humbling in recognizing how much we’re benefitting” from these layers of understanding that we’ve learned over generations of time and innovation.