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Cultural Evolution of Counting Overturned

on January 19, 2008

A new look at the counting systems of some Pacific islanders is overturning previously held views on the “cultural evolution” of counting, reports ScienceNOW.

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The people on the island of Mangareva in the Pacific use multiple object-specific counting systems. For instance, they use one number sequence to count unripe breadfruit and another for ripe breadfruit and octopus. Yet they also use an abstract counting system for other objects.

Yet they also use an abstract counting system for other objects.

Previously, anthropologists believed such object-specific counting systems came before modern, abstract systems in “cultural evolution.” So what are both types of systems doing side-by-side on Mangareva? That’s what anthropologist Andrea Bender and psychologist Sieghard Beller, both of the University of Freiburg, wanted to find out when they compared the Mangarevan tongue to three Melanesian languages, all four of which are believed to have “evolved” from Proto-Oceanic, an extinct language. Proto-Oceanic was thought to employ an abstract counting system, but the object-specific counting systems of Mangareva and one of the Melanesian languages seems to be “less” evolved. The researchers, writing in Science, conclude that necessity must have driven the adoption of object-specific counting systems over the abstract system.

There are two parallels between this “evolution” and the “evolution” we observe in the natural world. First, in the counting systems example, the system is moving from more complexity to less, not the other way around (as researchers thought); similarly, in nature, we observe destructive mutations and selective pressures leading to decreases in overall genetic information, not increases (which would be required if molecules-to-man evolution were true).

The other parallel is even more obvious: whereas the Darwinian story of molecules-to-man evolution is centered around chance mutations being selected by various pressures (“the blind watchmaker”), these languages (and counting systems) have been consciously adapted to various needs by the users of the languages; that is, there has been intelligent input in the development of the systems.

It’s interesting, then—though perhaps not surprising—that such “cultural evolution” reminds us of the flaws in Darwinian evolution!

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