CogSci Colloquium Talk: Where Do Numbers Come From?

Rafael Núñez

Professor at the Department of Cognitive Sciences of the University of California, San Diego

Title: Where Do Numbers Come From?: Evolution From Quantical to Numerical Cognition and the Biological Enculturation Hypothesis 
Date: Wednesday, 5th April 2023
Time: 9:30 pm (IST)
Meeting Link:


Where do numbers come from? Some mathematicians have pointed to formal definitions and axiomatic systems, other scholars have claimed that some numbers are God-given. Ultimately, these accounts do not provide answers that are consistent with what we know today about the natural world (which includes the human brain and mind). In the natural sciences, a widely accepted view in cognitive neuroscience, child psychology, and animal cognition posits that in humans (and many nonhuman animals) there is a biologically endowed capacity specific for number and arithmetic. However, data from various sources —humans from non-industrialized cultures, trained nonhuman animals in captivity, and the neuroscience of symbol processing in schooled participants— do not support this view. The use of loose and misleading technical terminology in the field of “numerical cognition” has facilitated the elaboration of teleological arguments which underlie the above view. To understand this, a crucial distinction between quantical and numerical cognition is necessary: Biologically evolved preconditions (BEPs) for quantification do exist (quantical cognition), but the emergence of exact symbolic quantification and arithmetic proper (numerical cognition) – absent in nonhuman animals – has materialized via human cultural preoccupations and practices that, supported by language and symbolic reference – are  crucial dimensions that lie largely outside natural selection. In this talk I’ll discuss the biological enculturation hypothesis, which attempts to explain the complex passage from quantical to numerical cognition in (some) humans, and in the process, gain insight into where numbers come from. 

Brief Bio: 

Rafael Núñez is Professor at the Department of Cognitive Sciences of the University of California, San Diego. Born and raised in Chile, he completed his doctoral career in Switzerland (Fribourg, Geneva, and Lausanne), and conducted his post-doctoral work at Stanford and UC Berkeley. He investigates the development and evolution of everyday and technical cognition (such as mathematics)—especially conceptual systems, symbolization, and abstraction— and their biologically enculturated underpinnings. His multidisciplinary approach uses methods such as psycholinguistic experiments, gesture studies, brain imaging, and field research with isolated indigenous groups. His 2001 best-selling book, Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being (co-authored with UC Berkeley linguist George Lakoff), presents a new theoretical framework for understanding the human bio-cultural nature of mathematics and its foundations. Rafael Núñez is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Australian Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, an active faculty member of the Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA) devoted to promote transdisciplinary research into human origins, and fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. He is one the four PIs of the recently awarded European Research Council Synergy Grant QUANTA, designed to investigate the bio-cultural evolution of Quantification. He has been recently elected life-time fellow of the Cognitive Science Society for his “impact on the Cognitive Science community, and [his] sustained record of excellence in research contributions.” 

Reading materials: 

Núñez, R. (2017). Is there really an evolved capacity for number? Trends in Cognitive  Sciences21(6), 409-424.

Núñez, R. (2017). Number – Biological Enculturation Beyond Natural Selection. Trends in Cognitive Sciences21(6), 404-405.