Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Math Gene by Keith Devlin

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."


litlove said...

Wow, I'm so impressed you read this, Emily and clearly processed it so well! I am hopeless with maths, completely hopeless although I wish I weren't, because long division can be very useful.

Froshty said...

After I read this post, it made think, yet again, about how much of our theories about life are created by linear thinkers who find it difficult to do more than one thing at a time or to be good at more than one thing. These are people who say that a woman can't be a good mother and a good at her job and the ones who stand by the printer and watch it print 500 pages instead of doing some other task for the duration of the print job. They also think that if you're good at math or very interested in it, then you're not going to be good at reading or interested in literature. The fact of the matter is that you can love math and reading equally and be both good at math and a good reader. I personally love math, and always have, and I love reading and writing, too. I used to think I wasn't good at math, but that was only because my grades would suffer because my ADD made me forget to put a negative sign in front of the answer. However, the process of figuring out math problems was one of my favorite things in school. I also think that people believe that they aren't good at math because they struggled with word problems in school. Well, I've learned that word problems are not designed to help you do math but instead are designed to try to trick you by giving you far too much irrelevant information. For some reason, in this country, we think a test or problem isn't good unless it has something in it that can lead you down the wrong path. That's not math; that's mind games--a whole different ball of wax. Oh, well, I'll get off my soap box now. I think I'll see if I can find the book at the library.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, don't be impressed. He writes very conversationally. And you're not hopeless at math. You just have so, so many things you're putting all your effort into that you don't have time to put your effort into it. If you did, I'm sure you'd be better than I at it (at least being British, you understand that it's plural for mathematics, and thus call it "maths" as opposed to we Americans who instead on making it the singular "math," so see? You're already one step ahead of me :-)!)

Froshty,I used to do the same thing: miss a negative sign or add something incorrectly during the very last step, and I had linear-thinking teachers who could only think, "no credit given unless the final answer is the correct one." Now, good teachers actually START with the word problems and help their students work through them to learn new concepts, which is really cool, and students can get credit even if they make those kinds of errors at the end (I liken them to typos). I wish I'd been taught math that way.

Dorothy W. said...

I was just thinking about how much fun it would be to take math classes again, so I'm sure I'd enjoy this book, flaws and all. Must do more math and science reading!

Stefanie said...

I don't hate math, I've just selectively enjoyed it depending on the teacher and I have no need for advanced math in my day to day that my skills have rather atrophied. Plus, my husband is very good at math and loves to do percentages in his head so it's much too easy for me to ask him how much a book that is 30% off costs than to figure it out for myself. The book sounds really interesting though so I am adding it to my TBR list.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, join the science challenge. Only three books for the year, and of course, math is a science, so you can read both math and science (says she, who will make it to November without having read even one that she chose. Just wait and see...).

Stef, it is interesting, and I think you'll like it. He's one of the "interesting" math teachers.