Caleb Everett

 

On his book Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting and the Course of Human Cultures

Cover Interview of June 20, 2017

A close-up

Readers will see that from the outset of the book, I try to convey the ways in which numbers are filtered into our lives in pervasive and often undetected ways. Everything from our perception of time to our self-esteem is impacted by the culturally specific means we use to quantify things.

Consider the case of time, highlighted in the first chapter: We have minutes and seconds not because of something that exists in the physical universe, but because we hold on to the detritus of long-dead languages in Mesopotamia, namely unusual base-60 number systems that were used by speakers in that region millennia ago.

In the first chapter I highlight ways in which particular number systems impact our lives, while presaging some of the major points of the book. I note that languages vary dramatically in the kinds of numbers they use, and some languages have few or no numbers. I also point out that number systems are usually based around decimal, vigesimal, and quinary patterns because most (but not all) numbers were developed after people recognized correspondences between the quantities of their fingers and other items in their surroundings.

However, humans arrived at such recognitions in haphazard ways that were only concretized and disseminated through and across cultures via number words. This dissemination ultimately reshaped the human story. These and other points are hinted at in the first chapter, and explored more fully later in the book.