Math in the News: Elephants are Smarter than your Babies

I missed the memo on this one, but apparently worms aren't the only animals capable of doing math. A recent experiment coming out of the University of Tokyo suggests that Asian elephants have an unexpected aptitude for arithmetic. While many animals have a rudimentary counting ability, and are able to distinguish between sets with only a few elements, it seems that elephants are able to take things a step further, and can consistently differentiate between larger numbers such as 5 and 6.

Is this difference significant? Within the animal kingdom, it would seem so. Here's how it breaks down, courtesy of this article:

A theory held by some is that humans and other animals share a basic neural system called an "accumulator" that can clearly distinguish numbers of objects less than three or four but that cannot reliably discriminate between bigger numbers. This accumulator is active in animals and, perhaps, in human infants, the theory contends. Higher-order number abilities require the collaboration of other, more highly developed brain systems found only in humans.

An ability to consistently distinguish between larger number (by larger, I mean larger than four) may therefore indicate a more advanced accumulator system than is found among the general kingdom's populace.

What does this mean for the noble elephant? While it's certainly a bit premature to start hiring them as our accountants or financial advisers (although, given the current economic conditions, perhaps giving elephants access to our finances isn't such a bad idea), it certainly does highlight what those active in elephant research already know: these majestic creatures aren't all looks. Each one has a head on its shoulders as well.

This elephant is no doubt pondering some very deep mathematics. The picture is taken from a collection that accompanies an excellent National Geographic article on these mathematical savants.

It is natural to ask what sort of evolutionary process would lead to the elephant's surprising counting aptitude (aside from the obvious benefit of being able to impress the ladies). An article from the London Times suggests the following alternative hypothesis:

Speculation among scientists over why the elephant should have developed its limited but nonetheless impressive mathematical ability centres on the way in which the lumbering creatures move in herds. A basic counting ability, say experts, might act as a guarantee that no calf is left behind.

Is the acquisition of mathematics knowledge driven by evolution? Perhaps in the animal kingdom, although if you ask graduate students in mathematics, I doubt they will say that an aptitude in math has really helped them to propagate the species. Those days are coming, my friends, but they are not here yet. For now, let us find solace in the fact that when it comes to defending the belief that mathematics is of fundamental importance, we will have a mighty ally in the Asian elephant.

The results of the experiment came as no surprise to Babar, whose sharp intellect not only allowed him to become king of the elephant empire, but also blessed him with a keen eye for fashion.

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