The ability to do math has long been thought of as a purely human trait – it comes with the whole higher-intelligence thing. But what if the ability to do math wasn’t as restricted to our makeup as we thought? Are we really as special as we think we are, or is our ego much larger than our reality?
Recent studies are turning up mathematical abilities in many different species of animals. Chickens, bees, and of course monkeys have all shown promise in being able to deal with simple mathematical operations, like differentiating between numbers, counting, and summing. The animals are performing math linguistically like we do – they are not physically counting out objects or identifying numbers. Rather, it is some sort of innate ability constituting rough math.
Irene Pepperberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology terms this a sort of “number sense,” capable of being learned even in invertebrates. Important to note is that accuracy is not as important for them as it is to us; according to Jessica Cantlon of the University of Rochester, the monkeys don’t mind missing – for them it’s all about the reward. They would rather do the problem quickly and make a mistake and move on than ensure their answer was correct by taking more time. For us, there is a definitive psychological component to our mathematical abilities. We’ve all taken that math test where you think you know how to do the problem but you aren’t quite sure, so you spend too much time on that problem and forget to focus on the rest. We care deeply about the correctness of our math.
The implications of this discovery and research might have profound effects on the education of our children. The suggestion that math ability is built into us biologically suggests that we may be able to introduce math subject matter to children at an earlier age. Since studies have shown that children learn much faster at a young age than when they get older, this has profound importance in an age where math is so important for the future. It also opens up the question to what other skill sets we take for granted as ours alone that may extend to the animal kingdom. What other abilities are built into us as instinct that we have expanded and developed upon? Suddenly, it seems, we aren’t as smart as we thought we were, comparatively speaking, of course. I don’t know about you, but if you can do what this monkey can do, I will be very impressed.