Numbed by numbers

Consider how much our lives are buried beneath numbers. We are reduced daily to a series of ID codes. As students of a budget-driven state school, we are quantified for profit and measured by GPA. Beyond PSU, it only gets worse. Our modern society reduces us more and more to nothing but a barcode, a statistic or a rent check.

What would life be like without numbers? Maybe we would actually notice the life in and around us (I hear the redwoods are humbling all year long). The bigger question is: what would life feel like without numbers?

For the answer, we can travel to the banks of the Maici River in the Brazilian Amazon where the Pirah퀌� people live. The Pirah퀌� have a very different concept of numbers and counting. They have neither words for numbers nor terms of quantification, including time. Whether this is because they have no need to count or because they lack the cognitive capacity is the question at the heart of an ongoing scientific debate that speaks volumes about how numbers may have warped our society.

According to a Columbia University study conducted by bio-behavioral cognitive psychologist Peter Gordon, the Pirah퀌� use a "one-two-many" system of enumeration. In other words, they have no other words for numbers beyond "one," "two" and "many." Additionally, "one" actually means "a few" and "two" means "less than many." These peculiarities are eagerly reported on MSNBC, BBC, the Washington Post and the Economist, just to name a few.

What strikes me about "one-two-many" is not the Pirah퀌� meanings of those terms. What strikes me is the brilliance of assigning an arbitrary counting system to a culture that doesn’t count. Our science is so advanced that we can only see things our way!

Dr. Gordon explains that testing showed that their "skill levels were similar to those of pre-linguistic infants, monkeys, birds and rodents." This elegantly illustrates the problems inherent in our mania for quantification. What kind of test would result in infants, monkeys, birds and rodents ending up in the same category? Furthermore, what are the implications of a culture that insists upon neurotic categorization of living creatures reduced to test subjects?

These are the cornerstones of hegemonic fantasy. Everything different must be homogenized or boxed into explanation by the ruling "we," the experts in charge. And how is it that "we" explain difference? By lashing out with judgement! The Pirah퀌� must be defective if we cannot understand them.

It couldn’t be that imagining life without numbers is radically counterintuitive because of our science-driven culture. It couldn’t be that we don’t understand because we can’t see past our own numerical confines. According to an article published in the Globe and Mail, some anthropologists have questioned whether inbreeding resulted in a "tribe of intellectually handicapped people." Other scientists in the same article describe the Pirah퀌� as "something from Mars." Stopping short of calling them crazy, Science has yet again hijacked Reason.

A reasonable study might focus on the fact that the Pirah퀌� communicate almost as much by singing, whistling and humming as by speech. A reasonable study might focus on their lack of stress-related illnesses.

The esteemed Dr. Gordon earnestly assures us that the Pirah퀌�’s "hunting, spatial, categorization and linguistic skills are remarkable" enough that we "can safely rule out that the Pirah퀌� are mentally retarded."

What a relief! Considering that when living off the land, "a few" means "use it carefully" and "many" means "plentiful," it appears the Pirah퀌� have their bases covered. If using one’s resources wisely indicated retardation, subsistence groups across the planet would be looking at a pretty bleak future. In fact, it might resemble the future we’re facing with our own theories on resources considering that our nation burns 380 million gallons of gasoline a day.

It’s too late to do anything about our overreliance on numbers, but at least we could understand that our approach isn’t necessarily the only one, or for that matter, the best.

Ray Jackendoff, a liguistics professor at Brandeis University who studied the Pirah퀌�, said, "Why they have been resistant to adopting Western number systems is beyond me."

Perhaps they prefer not to take part in their own annihilation.

Amy Lee can be reached at [email protected].