There are many evolutionary advantages in being able to count and to use the results of counting in foraging, in survival, and in reproduction. For example, defending lions will only attack intruders if they outnumber them.
MARC BEKOFF: Many animals seem to have inherent mathematical abilities. Virtually all creatures possess an inherent mathematical mechanism called the “accumulator” that provides an innate understanding of basic math… There are many evolutionary advantages to being able to count…
In his new book, Can Fish Count?: What Animals Reveal About Our Uniquely Mathematical Minds, cognitive scientist Brian Butterworth shows that many animals seem to have inherent mathematical abilities..2 Here’s what Brian had to say about his fascinating investigation into the numerical abilities of diverse animals and how they help us make better sense of our own…
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book and what are some of your major messages?
BB: Numbers are abstract. The only thing that these three sets have in common is their threeness: three chimes of Big Ben, three coins in the fountain, and three wishes. Other animals also manage a degree of abstraction, though perhaps not as much as humans. Numbers (numerosities) are perhaps the only abstract concepts that some animals can manage.
The counting mechanism is very simple, so even small brains can do it. What is complicated and neurally expensive is choosing things to count. We can count anything, objects, sounds, abstract objects but many animals will (or perhaps can) count only adaptively relevant things: food items, mating calls (as in the túngara frog, or songbirds songs), number of competitors (e.g. lions invading a pride’s territory).
There are many evolutionary advantages in being able to count and to use the results of counting in foraging, in survival, and in reproduction. For example, defending lions will only attack intruders if they outnumber them. This means comparing the number of defenders and the number of invaders. The intruders will retreat if outnumbered. A painless win for the defenders. Male Túngara frogs count the number “chucks” in competitors’ advertisement calls and add one because females prefer males that make the most chucks. Most animals will go for more food given a choice, and indeed more pieces of food when the total quantity is equated.
The ability of animals to perform mathematical operations – even without being taught – also invites the question: Just where exactly do numbers come from? This is a philosophical question that goes back to Plato and indeed earlier to Pythagoras, who allegedly said all things are made of numbers. In tracing the evolution of numerical capabilities back through our recent ancestors and cousins, early humans and Neanderthals, great apes, baboons, crows and parrots, frogs and salamanders, insects, spiders, and of course fish, I shed some new light on the question.
Virtually all creatures possess an inherent mathematical mechanism, probably passed down from our most distant common ancestors. This mechanism, known as the “accumulator,” provides an innate understanding of mathematics at its most basic level, and is the foundation for the more sophisticated math systems we use today. When it malfunctions in humans, dyscalculia can be the result. We have even discovered dyscalculia in fish, and are now seeking its genetic basis. SOURCE…