Apr

24

 Very interesting article on Galton:

One, two, many: The prehistory of counting

The Victorian idea that "primitive" tribes can't count has cast a long shadow over efforts to understand the origins of mathematics

LOOKING back, Francis Galton would call it "our most difficult day". It was 4 March 1851, and the young English explorer was beginning to appreciate the obstacles confronting his attempts to map out the Lake Ngami region of south-western Africa. Struggling to navigate a narrow ridge of jagged rock, his wagon had "crashed and thundered and thumped" while his oxen "charged like wild buffaloes".

To make matters worse, Galton had little faith in his local guides from the Damara tribe, who appeared to lack even an understanding of basic arithmetic - a situation Galton found "very annoying". He recounts that having established an exchange rate of one sheep for two sticks of tobacco, he handed four sticks to a local herdsman in the expectation of purchasing two sheep. Having put two sticks in front of the first sheep, the man seemed surprised that two sticks remained to pay for the second. "His mind got hazy and confused," Galton reported, and the transaction had to be abandoned and the sheep purchased separately.

As further evidence of the apparent ignorance of the Damara, Galton wrote that they "use no numeral greater than three" and that they managed to keep track of their oxen only by recognising their faces, rather than by counting them. At a most inopportune time for his expedition, Galton seemed to have stumbled into a world without numbers.

To a modern reader, these tales in Galton's 1853 Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa seem little more than pithy anecdotes that reflect his prejudices as a gentleman of the growing Victorian empire. (His preoccupation with the supposed inferiority of other peoples persisted in his later work in eugenics.) Within 10 years, however, those same reports of primitive innumeracy were being used by the finest scientific minds of Victorian Britain to glimpse the savage condition of prehistoric humans.

Read the full article here

Victor Niederhoffer writes:

This seems wrong to criticize Galton. What am I missing? 

Steve Stigler writes: 

Vic,

The author is a 1st year PhD student at Princeton who isn't even working on Galton, and writes carelessly without knowledge. See his bio. He looks bright but has a lot to learn.


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