Why this matters
The use of words is hardwired into the human brain. We know this conclusively because children who have grown up without human contact have been able to create their own languages. It was thought possible that counting and numbers could also be hardwired into our brains - but this discovery seems to prove that wrong.
What this means for human thinking
From the article:
One other discovery of the project is that the Piraha can perform exact matching tasks as long as there is no memory component to them, but once there is a memory component, they approximate their matches. This suggests that language is a cognitive technology that aids humans in memory tasks.
As I'm understanding this, when the speakers' tasks involve the present, the speakers use their words to exactly match shown quantities. But if the tasks involve a comparison with the past, the speakers change to a relative comparison method.
Comparing with the past, of course, involves the use of memory. From this, these cognitive scientists think it likely that human language was created at least in part to help with memory.
For what it's worth, this makes complete sense to me. Language and memory are very deeply linked together. Thinking back through my own memories, they're all linked up through language. Either it's a concept such as "playing sports", or "first day of school", or it's something specific someone said to me, or a grand achievement or disappointment - which all plays into story, which is all based on language.
Also, and more indicative - I don't have any long-term memories that occur before I learned language. It may be possible that some people really do have pre-verbal memories from before they learned language - but if so, those memories are still more rare and less clear.
The fact that a language lacking in numbers is so incredibly rare - only one found so far out of almost 7000 currently spoken - indicates what real survival value the use of specific numbers gives us.
What this means for our history
Current science indicates that our primate cousins and early competitors, the Neanderthals, also had language. From what we can tell they had a skilled stone tool culture. They also were apparently stronger and tougher than us, and had larger brains (for what that's worth). They were settled in and established for thousands of years before we came across them. So why did they disappear so quickly?
One theory is that our Cro Magnon ancestors were able to supplant them by using language not only to communicate, but also for symbolic and conceptual thinking. The Cro-Magnons thus could imagine possibilities that did not yet exist, and also compare the present with the past in terms of changing needs. Both of these capabilities are key to better planning for the present and for the future.
Numbers would fit in exactly with this sort of revolutionary advantage. In computer terms, developing a concept for numbers would be a specific and actual software change - a language change that enabled us to create newer and better programs for ourselves.
Picture the scene. Neanderthals say: "We're hungry. We saw some deer by the river last time, maybe there's enough of them." Cro Magnons say: "We have 7 people. Our tribe needs more than 4 deer to survive. We only saw 3 deer at the river. I see trails for 5 deer going over the hill - let's hunt them instead."
The idea that human survival over competition is due to software (as in language and concepts), as opposed to hardware (as in genetically inherited brainpower), sure is another nice cup of STFU to any notion of innate genetic superiority of any subdivision of humanity. But what interests me in a larger sense is what this means for humanity's relationship to the Universe.
The Universe appears to be based on numbers and math. It operates according to laws that have specific ratios which can be quantified. Even when it has randomness, that randomness is visible in contrast to the Universe's apparent reliance on number-based laws.
But our understanding of math is not built-in. It appears to be a software-only advantage. Something that was wholly learned, which has helped us to survive.
Which means to me that this is one more way that the Universe wants us to learn and to thrive. It is rewarding us specifically for our learning. It's giving and showing us an ever-expanding cycle - by learning, we can live, and be able to learn better and live better, and move ever further towards a more beautiful horizon.
Among the current lessons the Universe has assigned us: learning to not treat each other like crap, and learning that gasoline might not last forever.