How does this work? These desert ants calculate the distance walked by counting steps. Researchers discovered this by strapping stilts made of pig hairs onto the legs of the ants. The ant’s stilts made each individual step longer than it would have otherwise been, making them overestimate the distance home. The ants calculate the direction they walk by calculating the angle of their path relative to the position of the sun, using the same rules of trigonometry that were taught to me in the tenth grade. And what’s more, the ants constantly update their calculations to correct for the sun's march across the sky. All that in a nervous system comprised of as few as 250,000 neurons (compared to the approximately 85 billion neurons in the human).
The human capacity for language has allowed our species to transcend the core mathematical and numerical skills that are shared with other species both closely and distantly related. Language allows us to give names to numbers (such as one trillion) too large to comprehend without the aid of words. It allows us to articulate explicit mathematical rules. It allows us to torment children with the spectre of mathematical problems and geometric proofs. But underneath the facade provided by words and language, humans are but one of many species armed with a propensity for counting and calculation. Whether numbers are fun, as my seventh grade teacher claimed, or not, is subjective. One certainty, however, is that numbers are everywhere.