Caleb Everett


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

Cover Interview of June 20, 2017


I hope the book gives readers a better appreciation of how so many central aspects of their own lives are dependent on the invention of the cognitive tools we call numbers. The story of numbers is also illustrative a larger theme: what makes humans so special is not simply our innately given intelligence, but the cognitive tools we acquire from each other—often across generations—and then subsequently refine.

An interrelated pragmatic goal of the book is to bring heightened awareness to the crucial role that anthropological linguistics can play in elucidating the human narrative, helping us to better understand how we got where we are now as a species. Anthropological linguistics sits at the nexus of the study of language, human cognition, and culture, and relies on findings from other diverse fields like neuroscience and archaeology. The claims in the book are based on findings from all these diverse fields, but rest most heavily on the study of diverse languages around the world.

I also hope that the book gives readers a better sense of the insights diverse cultures can give us, even those cultures that do not wield numerical technologies like ours. There is a temptation to exoticize small groups of indigenes, and to see their reduced reliance on numbers as less natural or, simply, weird. In fact, they represent more faithfully the bulk of our species’ history, since most numerical technologies are a relatively recent innovation. They offer an important window through which we can look and discover more about ourselves.

Finally, I hope one of the consequences of the book is that readers will reflect on the fact that so many of the “essential” numerical features of their lives, from time-telling to the measurement of their net worth, are not shared by all people.