What Animals Know about Numbers

Authored by: Elizabeth M. Brannon

Handbook of Mathematical Cognition

Print publication date:  December  2004
Online publication date:  August  2005

Print ISBN: 9781841694115
eBook ISBN: 9780203998045
Adobe ISBN: 9781135423667


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Adult humans use number to categorize, quantify, and measure almost every aspect of our environment—be it serial numbers, football jerseys, addresses, shoe sizes, weights, heights, spatial coordinates, grocery prices, batting averages, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This book documents the vast research that has addressed how the human mind represents number and makes mathematical calculations, the biological bases of the human number sense, and the development of both nonverbal and verbal mathematics. Although humans alone are capable of complex and abstract mathematics, a Darwinian perspective predicts that even the most complicated and impressive human cognitive capacities should have precursors in the minds of nonhuman animals. In accord with this prediction, researchers of the animal mind have made it increasingly difficult to argue that any particular complex human behavior is uniquely human. Over the last few decades, precursors of language (e.g., Savage-Rumbaugh, Shanker, & Taylor, 1998), culture (e.g., Whiten et al., 1999; Van Schaik et al., 2003), tool use (e.g., Boesch, 1995), theory of mind (e.g., Tomasello, Call, & Hare, 2003), metacognition (e.g., Shields, Smith, & Washburn, 1997), and even music appreciation (Wright, Rivera, Hulse, Shyan, & Neiworth, 2000) have been found in nonhuman primate species. Likewise, researchers of the animal mind have developed many different experimental paradigms to test the numerical capacities of animals and found that a wide variety of species possess numerical competence. The goal of this chapter is to summarize the main findings that a century of study of animal numerical competence has revealed and to highlight the similarities and differences between human and nonhuman numerical abilities.

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