The ‘cultural imagination’ and counting to base six

So yesterday night, as I was falling asleep, I was reading John Gribbin’s book ‘The Reason Why’ which is all about why humans exist the way we do, on this particular planet we call Earth.

One of the interesting questions Gribbin examines is how long it would have taken a creature of human-like intelligence to have evolved from the dinosaurs, had they not been wiped out. In this regard, Troodon, a small dinosaur about the size of a man is quite interesting, says Gribbin. It had one of the largest body size to brain size ratios we know of among dinosaurs. And it would have taken a paltry 25 million years for typical evolutionary processes to produce a lizard with an equivalent body-brain size ratio to modern humans. That means sentient lizards might have appeared about 40 million years ago. (For comparison Homo erectus appeared about 1.5 million years ago).

But what really hit me was what Gribbin said about how these smart lizards might have counted. Since Troodon had three ‘fingers’ on each hand, its hypothetical descendants would probably have counted using a base six system. It’s tempting to think that using base 10, the way we humans do, is the logical way to count, but of course, that’s only because we are so used to using 10. There’s nothing objectively special about the number

This ties in with a theme I have been thinking about in the modules I’m taking as part of my science communication course. It is all very well talking about the stories that get covered in the news and analysing them. But also important is the way things are not covered. Because the things that don’t enter our cultural consciousness will never happen – because we just don’t think about them. We can’t imagine having a revolution in this country, over-throwing parliament or something*, because we’re just never exposed to that sort of idea in the mainstream media.

This limits what humanities types call our ‘cultural imagination’. And it must apply to science too, right? The way that science is not done is important and worth thinking about. Just because we always count using 10s doesn’t mean six is an irrelevance.

*I hope it’s not necessary, but for the record, I am in no way suggesting that over-throwing parliament would be a good idea!

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3 Responses to The ‘cultural imagination’ and counting to base six

  1. Audrey says:

    Would the lizards have been hampered by no opposing thumb though and getting through an ice age?

  2. joshuahowgego says:

    Interestingly enough, ice ages are thought to drive evolution more quickly, as I understand it. These mean that creatures have to adapt to survive, which means evolution can speed up. So an ice age might have been bad for Troodon itself, but good for his smart descendants which would have come after him (maybe wearing clothes to keep warm?!)

  3. Erica says:

    Deep. We humans are so limited by our preconceptions and cultural assumptions.

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