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Postmodern Tribes

Life Without Numbers

1+1=2. Mathematics doesn't get any more basic than this, but even 1+1 would stump the brightest minds among the Piraha tribe of the Amazon. A study appearing today in the journal Science reports that the hunter-gatherers seem to be the only group of humans known to have no concept of numbering and counting.

Not only that, but adult Piraha apparently can't learn to count or understand the concept of numbers or numerals, even when they asked anthropologists to teach them and have been given basic math lessons for months at a time.

...Prof. [Daniel] Everett argues that what the Piraha case demonstrates is a fundamental cultural principle working itself out in language and behaviour.

The principle is that the Piraha see themselves as intrinsically different from, and better than, the people around them; everything they do is to prevent them from being like anyone else or being absorbed into the wider world. One of the ways they do this is by not abstracting anything: numbers, colours, or future events.

Reading the list of things that the Piraha lack -- numbers, colors, mythology, art, stable personal identity -- gives me flashbacks to the eighteenth century. Anthropology got its start as an apologetic for European supremacy by documenting primitive tribes' lack of things, such as religion and grammar, that seemed indispensible to normal human life. Of course, the problem turned out to be with the anthropologists and the ethnocentrically narrow concepts of culture that they were measuring other societies by. Whether a similar situation holds with the Piraha is hard to say. Those that have studied the Piraha explicitly deny the eighteenth-century conclusion about the intrinsic inferiority of foreigners, even when their data sounds like the same litany of cultural absences. And anthropology is rightfully embarassed by that period of its past, and so is far more careful with making such declarations -- suggesting that the evidence for Piraha innumeracy is fairly strong.

The most interesting bit about this, though, is Everett's hypothesis quoted above (which, sadly, did not appear in any of the other articles on the Piraha that I encountered). On the one hand, the Piraha as he describes them are the ultimate postmodernists, rejecting the making of categories and positing of universals. They even delve into hermeneutics, denying that outsiders can understand their language -- a claim that seems aimed at rejecting outsiders' attempts to "speak for" them, in a way even more radical than the usual statements of members of oppressed groups attacking dominant-group social scientists.

On the other hand, they represent a sort of weird inverse of the ethnocentric 18th century anthropologists. Everett is suggesting that they manufacture their "lack" in order to prove that they are the superior group.


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