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Animals give clues to the origins of human number crunching

In zoos and barnyards, scientists search for deep evolutionary underpinnings of mathematics

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2:00pm, November 29, 2016
cat with abacus

NUMBER SMARTS  Cats show quantity-­related abilities. Without training, cats can pick out differences between groups of a few small objects, such as 2 versus 5, but the felines may be using visual shortcuts.

When Christian Agrillo runs number-related experiments in his lab, he wishes his undergraduate subjects good luck. For certain tests, that’s about all he says. Giving instructions to the people would be unfair to the fish.

Agrillo, of the University of Padua in Italy, is finishing up several years of pitting humans against fish in trials of their abilities to compare quantities. He can’t, of course, tell his angelfish or his guppies to choose, say, the larger array of dots. So in recent tests he made the bemused students use trial and error too.

“At the end, they start laughing when they find they are compared with fish,” he says. Yet the fish versus humans face-offs are eye-opening comparisons in his search for the deep evolutionary basis of what has blossomed into human mathematics. If it turns out that fish and people share some

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