Book Reviews

The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip
by Keith J. Devlin

Hardcover - 328 pages (January 15, 2000)
Basic Books; ISBN: 0465016189 ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.17 x 9.68 x 6.48

Editorial Reviews
Review by William  A.  Spriggs,
Nov. 26, 00.

Let's get the bad news about this book out of the way first before I praise it: there is no such thing as a "math" gene. OK? But why listen to me, perhaps we should let the author explain it:

"Before we begin, I should clear up one thing: there is no 'math gene' in the sense of a specific sequence of human DNA that confers mathematical ability. There are, of course, genes that affect our ability to do mathematics. But, in calling this book The Math Gene, I am simply adopting a common metaphor. Roughly speaking, by 'the math gene' I mean 'an innate facility for mathematical thought,' just as authors sometimes use 'the language gene' to refer to our innate facility to acquire and use language." p. xvi.

For those of you who listen to National Public Radio, you know that Mr. Devlin is a regular contributor to the show who puts his mathematical spin on all things mathematical; he does it with lucidity and enthusiasm that is equal to none. You can tell he loves mathematics, and you easily get caught up with his passion.

As he tells us in his book, he formed the concept in his mind several years ago. He and his wife were hooked on the television soap parody Soap. When the show itself became a success, it was then that Mr. Delvin hit upon the understanding of mathematics as related to gossip and its use within the brain.

The basis for his theory is something like this: Since the formation of our ancestors was based upon the success of hunter-gatherer bands, the concept of team spirit among sports teams, student alumni associations, and the racial identities of groups that followed in our modern world are easy to understand. But, even more profound of human activities is the fact that members of the various groups care about each other:

"Team spirit depends upon a shared experience or common interest...Caring, on the other hand, is greatly enhanced if each member of the group knows about the lives of the others. and this is a task for which gossip is ideally suited -- indeed, that is its sole purpose...Here then is a definite evolutionary advantage of gossip: it provides a mechanism for creating and maintaining group commitment...Given the important role of distributed group activity in human life, it seems likely that gossip formed the principle use of language (as opposed to protolanguage) from the moment it first appeared on the scene." pp. 258 & 259.

It is at this point that Mr. Delvin kicks in with the mathematical equivalent of soap operas and gossip: "This structure shows that all human languages are constructed, in the first place, to describe who did what to whom, (SUBJECT-VERB-OBJECT), and secondarily to explain how, why, where, and when (the various MODIFIERS). p. 259. (it is here that he also cites Robin Dunbar and his 1997 seminal book, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language also in this recommended readings page).

To continue his theory: "The 'characters' in the mathematical soap opera are not people but mathematical objects -- numbers, geometric figures, groups, topological spaces, and so forth. The facts and relationships that are the focus of attention are not births and deaths, marriages, love affairs, and business relationships, but mathematical facts and relationships about mathematical objects. Are objects A and B equal? What is the relationship between objects X and Y? Do all objects of type X have property P? How many objects of type Z are there? These are the kinds of questions that interest the avid devotee of the soap opera we call mathematics." p. 261

This is not just a scientist oversimplifying a theory and attempting to 'talk down' to the common person; Delvin devotes many citations to buttress his arguments. He also gives highly credible arguments as to why some people have math ability and others are totally stumped. He also dives into the language area of the brain and boldly gives us arguments as to why Chinese and Japanese students are better at math then English speakers (p.64); he dives into shapes and how and why they work in the brain and expands our knowledge of object movements and relationships. I shall leave you impatiently breathless to read the book to find out his master stroke of wisdom in those sections of his book.

I consider this book it to be an established and essential building block in our understanding of our evolved past. I am a complete convert to his convincing explanation of our species ability to understand and do mathematics. I recommend this book highly for all, (even those in grade schools showing mathematical abilities), and suggest that you make it part of your permanent library. However, if I were to compare Mr. Devlin's book to an gymnastic event where the number ten is perfection, I am afraid that I would have to score this book an 8 because of his falling on his tush/bum in using an inappropriate title. As we enter the timeline of SELF-GENETIC  SELECTION, it is a matter that should not be taken lightly. After all, some people take soap operas seriously, don't they? SELF-GENETIC  SELECTION, it is a matter that should not be taken lightly. After all, some people take soap operas seriously, don't they?

Click here to Learn more or purchase from

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage, 1995 - 2011