Is math a universal language

How does mathematics come into the world?

2 + 3 = 5 - This simple math equation has set a course for the unknown. Together with some others (including 2 x 3 = 6) it is stored on the "Voyager Golden Records", those gold-plated records that are on the two Voyager space probes launched by NASA in 1977. After they have explored our outer planetary system, they are now drifting out into the open space. Should extraterrestrial life forms happen to catch the probes and also unravel the operating instructions for playing the records, they would be able to marvel at the sounds and images of the earth as well as mathematical tables. But would they understand it too?

The universe is math

The cosmologist Max Tegmark from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says: Yes. Our entire universe is nothing more than mathematics. Recognizing mathematical relationships would then be a direct insight into the conditions of our existence, mathematics the universal language of the universe - and thus the best way to come into contact with aliens.

The cognitive psychologist Rafael Núñez from the University of California in San Diego holds against it: For him, the abstract handling of numbers is not a product of evolution, but a predominantly culturally acquired skill. Who is right? Is math like light or heat - a property of nature that brains have some kind of sense of? Or is mathematics more like language, an auxiliary construct to open up nature?

Animals that matter

Many empirical studies initially speak in favor of the former: the ability to think mathematically has burned itself into our brains in the course of evolution. Studies by Elizabeth Spelke and colleagues at Harvard University have shown that babies as early as six months old were able to distinguish between collections of 8 and 16 points. The same brain regions were active as in adults. The Tübingen brain researcher Andreas Nieder points out that many animals also have at least a rudimentary sense of numbers: hens only start to breed when a certain number of eggs are in the nest. If you play lionesses hiding the roar of rivals, they decide, depending on the number, to retreat or defend their territory. Well-trained animals can even become real math geniuses - such as Alex, the gray parrot of the psychologist Irene Pepperberg. Several years ago at Harvard he could almost always count up to six objects correctly and even croak the result in English.

So the brain has a certain sense of numbers. On the one hand, there is a cruder sense of the comparison of quantities. On the other hand, the brain can intuitively and simultaneously grasp a maximum of four objects. If, on the other hand, you put five or more coins on the table, even math-experienced people from industrialized nations have to start counting.

Man-made number language

The brain has specialized regions for each of these abilities. "These processes take place in the prefrontal cortex and the intraparietal sulcus," reports Nieder. These are the same places that researchers have also demonstrated brain activity when engaging in advanced math. For him it follows that mathematical understanding is a product of evolution - and not a solitary privilege of the human intellect. Mathematics would then be a universal tool that helps living things to cope with their environment.

Rafael Núñez counters with research results on non-industrialized cultures. In 2004, French researchers in the Amazon region showed speakers of the Mundurukú language boards with dots and asked them to name the corresponding number. Interestingly enough, only the board with two dots was almost 100 percent associated with the number word for "two" (namely "xep xep"). While at least 90 percent of the number word for "one" was chosen for one point, the speakers for three and four points only named the correct number words in 78 and 68 percent of the cases, respectively.

"You cannot explain these results if you assume that counting is firmly anchored in the human brain," says Núñez. Obviously, the exact differentiation of numbers is a cultural achievement that is simply not necessary for the Mundurukú speakers in their everyday life. In fact, the numerals in this language also end at "four". This is followed by expressions for "one hand", "two hands" and "some" and "many".

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