January 27, 2020

Is there really a biologically evolved capacity for number? Quantical vs. numerical cognition and the biological enculturation hypothesis

Rafael Nuñez, University of California San Diego

Is there a biologically endowed capacity specific for number and arithmetic? A widely accepted view in cognitive neuroscience, child psychology, and animal cognition gives an unproblematic ‘yes’ for an answer to this question, claiming that there is a biologically evolved capacity specific for number and arithmetic that humans share with other species. However, data from various sources—humans from non-industrialized cultures, trained nonhuman animals in captivity, and the neuroscience of symbol processing in schooled participants—do not support this view. The use of loose and misleading technical terminology in the field of “numerical cognition” has facilitated the elaboration of teleological arguments which underlie the above view. To understand this, a crucial distinction between quantical and numerical cognition is necessary: Biologically evolved preconditions (BEPs) for quantification do exist (quantical cognition), but the emergence of exact symbolic quantification and arithmetic proper (numerical cognition)—absent in nonhuman animals—has materialized via cultural preoccupations and practices that are supported by language and symbolic reference—crucial dimensions that lie largely outside natural selection. In this talk I’ll discuss the biological enculturation hypothesis, which attempts to explain the complex passage from quantical to numerical cognition.