Devlin, Keith. The Math Gene. New York: Basic Books, 2000.
(This was the fourth book I read for the 2007 nonfiction five challenge and the fifth and final one on which I'm posting.)
If I'd written about this book when I was halfway through it, I would have said, "Everybody, quick, drop everything you're doing and read this book." That's how important I felt what Devlin has to say is. I get so tired of hearing people divide us all into two groups: "math people" and "reading people." As Devlin explains, many claim we're either born with a "math gene" or we're not. Similarly, we are born with a "reading gene," or we're not. The former is an innate ability for mathematics, the latter an innate ability to read and write. Of course, my first response to such an assumption is: why do so many more people claim not to have the math gene than claim not to have the reading gene? After all, if it's nothing more than genetics, we should have many, many more mathematicians wandering around in our midst than we seem to have. Likewise, we should have many more illiterates with college degrees. Devlin, I'm sure, at some point, asked that very same question, because one of his basic arguments is that it's the same "gene," if you will.
This book provides a very convincing argument that as humans evolved, we developed a need to communicate with each other, but we needed to do more than merely communicate. We needed to acquire language in order to survive. He conjectures that the reason our brains are so large is that they grew in order to accommodate this need for language. He also theorizes that as the brain developed features to help us speak to others and to understand what they say, it was also developing, right along with them, the features that help us do mathematics.
I was fascinated and riveted throughout most of the book. Devlin stresses that doing math well, like playing tennis or playing the piano well, takes work and effort. He hypothesizes that many people who think they can't do math are just people who lost interest in it and, thus, weren't willing to put in the effort (my personal take is to blame poor teachers or poor teaching methods, not the lack of a "math gene" for this loss of interest). I can very readily relate to what he says. When I was a child, I quickly lost interest in both tennis and piano, and I could claim to lack "genes" for both, but basically, I just wasn't willing to put in the time and effort to learn either one, when I wanted to spend my time reading, writing, riding my bicycle, and climbing ropes.
The math geek in me was fascinated by the chapter in which Devlin describes the arithmetic of transformations of shapes. I won't try to explain it here. I'd lose half of you, because you quit putting in any effort in math by the time you were eight, and the other half would be thinking, "That was a revelation to her?" Suffice it to say that I found it very cool. I'm someone who had definitely lost interest in math when I was young. However, I've regained an interest rather late in life, am having to play "catch up," and revelations such as this one that make me see shapes and arithmetic in a different way are now great fun.
Devlin also cites a lot of interesting brain and psychological studies, and he provides a mini-lesson in linguistics. I love him for that. Even if I didn't love him for that, though, how could I not love a man who says the following?
"Mathematics is not about numbers but about life. It is about the world in which we live. It is about ideas. And far from being dull and sterile, as it is often portrayed, it is full of creativity." (p. 76)
Where I quibble with him, though, is when he talks about other animals and what they can or can't do. I don't think we really have much of a clue at all about other animals, and I'm pretty sure it's a mistake to compare our abilities with theirs. Our only real point of reference is how we do things, which makes for biased comparisons. For instance, I'm not completely convinced that all other species that have developed a means of communication are only doing that: communicating, whereas humans alone have something called "language," with which we can do much more than merely communicate (for example, predict that the moon is going to be full on a particular date due to the patterns we've observed as to when a full moon occurs and inform others of this fact, often through representations of pictures of moon shapes, say). We barely have a grasp of how many species inhabit this planet along with us, let alone have we studied each and every one of them all that closely, and we don't have to go back too far in history to meet people who didn't think nonhuman animals could feel pain.
Also, the subtitle of this book is "How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip." He talks about math being like a soap opera for mathematicians, with numbers being the characters and the "stories" of those characters (their relationships, etc.) being mathematical ones. He starts separating mathematicians from non-mathematicians at this point, and it's very difficult not to start envisioning these mathematicians who do have some sort of special "gene" that enables them to understand these mathematical soap operas. And I definitely would like to be able to ask him more about his "fiction and garden metaphors." He says:
"One drawback with both the fiction and garden metaphors is that the people who write novels and design gardens have considerable freedom in which to exercise their creativity. In contrast, mathematics is highly constrained, with mathematical creativity being that of choosing what to investigate and how to carry out an investigation." (p. 264).
How many of you who write fiction out there would ever claim it isn't highly constrained? Gardening is even more constrained. For instance, if you happen to live where I do, no matter how creative your imagination is, you're not going to be planting orange trees that you expect to bear fruit, and you're certainly not going to be out trimming your roses this time of year.
These are mere quibbles, though (because, of course, I have to be ornery). Overall, especially for those who don't want to put a lot of effort into math, I'd say this was an extremely interesting read with some fascinating points and theories. So, I won't say, "Everyone, quick, drop what you're doing and read this book." I will say, however, "If you think you hate math, give this one a try. It might make you think differently. And if you don't think you hate math, you'll probably enjoy this one immensely, as I did."