Oct 15, 2022
You may be thinking, “WHAAAT? That’s impossible! Who could live without numbers? If they don’t have them, then they must invent them, right?” But you would be wrong.
What shocks you? A scary movie? A failing grade on a math quiz? Your favorite sports team coming from behind at the end to score an upset victory? Well, maybe, but keep reading, there are much bigger surprises ahead.
When I was very young, one of the first things I learned to do was count. “One, two, three…” When I could finally count all the way up to 10, it was a big deal! It was even bigger when I learned that I didn’t have to stop at 10 but could go on counting… forever.
I was a big shot…until I discovered that all my friends could count forever too. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but it has always been taken for granted that all human beings learn to count forever, and that no other species can count at all. A nice, neat way to package the world to ensure that we come out on top.
Except that this picture is totally wrong! So…prepare to be shocked:
Shock #1: Many animals can count. Monkeys and apes can count. So can birds, especially parrots, crows, and ravens. Fish can count as well as some reptiles. Some members of these species can even do arithmetic.
Shock #2: Some members of some species can count and do math better than you…or at least better than you when you were very young. Are you struggling with math? Perhaps a pet parrot could help you with your homework. (We know that some parrots help other parrots learn arithmetic. Who knows, perhaps the first student teacher was a bird.)
Shock #3: While it is true that some animals perform better than some humans in some situations, not to worry! You’ll come out ahead in the end. Animals learn to count quickly and at a very early age, but as far as we know, their math skills are limited. Most can’t count beyond the number 9. Apparently, they will never know what you and your friends learned early on: counting is forever.
Shock #4: Not all human beings count. They can count, but they don’t. Their languages have no words (or very few words) for numbers. Imagine English without ‘one, two, three…’ or Spanish without ‘uno, dos, tres…’
Because they have no words for numbers, they don’t learn to count, and they certainly don’t learn to do math. Who are these lucky kids who don’t have to learn arithmetic?
As you know, human beings live all over the world, in almost every nook and cranny, but for the most part, we’re all connected, linked to one another by roads, airplanes, telephones, television, internet, etc. Counting spreads!
Most human beings are connected…but not all. Some live in small, close-knit communities called tribes. Some of those tribes are still almost totally isolated from the rest of the human world, and not all of these tribes count like we do.
It turns out that many of the world’s smallest cultures have no numbers beyond three (e.g., 1, 2, more than 2); some have no numbers at all!
You may be thinking, “WHAAAT? That’s impossible! Who could live without numbers? If they don’t have them, then they must invent them, right?”
But you would be wrong. They don’t have numbers, and they don’t invent words in place of numbers because they don’t want numbers; and they live quite nicely without them, thank you.
Now, perhaps you’re thinking, “Gee, this doesn’t sound so bad after all. Maybe I would like to live in such a tribe. Better than taking math quizzes every week!”
Before you say goodbye to your parents and purchase a one-way ticket to the Amazon Rain Forest (or some other remote location), why not live without numbers for just a single day?
Try it: no counting, no arithmetic. (I suggest you pick a day when you don’t have to be in school.) Don’t worry, you’ll mess up. We all do! We’re so used to numbers that we often use them without thinking about it. Just notice when you do.
If you want, you could keep a journal. Write down the things that happen to you, the problems you overcome, and the times you mess up and let a pesky number sneak through the back door.
You can have fun playing this game on your own, or you can play it with a sibling or some friends. Here are the rules; they’re pretty simple: (1) you can’t use numbers of any kind: no 0, no 1, no 2, no 1st, no 2nd. (2) you can’t use words that take the place of numbers. For example, you can’t use words like all or some. These words are just numbers in disguise. Don’t be fooled!
It’s ok to say that something is big or small, but don’t say that something’s bigger or smaller than something else. See why?
Are you game? Give it a try it and let us know how it goes.
Would you have any use for $50? (I know that’s a number, sorry.) No problem! Just send us an email saying that you tried to live ‘number free’ for the day and describe your experience. You’ll be entered into a drawing for a $50 cash card, which will take place on Halloween night; do we need to allow more time? Would this be an interesting extra credit project for a grade school class? Send all entries and suggestions to email@example.com. Put “Number Challenge” in the subject line.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.