George Lakoff, of the University of California, Berkeley, along with Rafael Nunez, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, have for several years advanced the argument that much of mathematics, from set theory to trigonometry to the concept of infinity, derives not from immutable properties of the universe but from the evolutionary history of the human brain and body. Our number system, they argue, and our understanding of addition and subtraction emerge from the fact that we are bipedal animals that measure off distances in discrete steps. "If we had wheels, or moved along the ground on our bellies like snakes," Lakoff argues, "math might be very different." These ideas have met intense opposition among mathematicians, but also among some cognitive scientists, who believe they reflect an overreaching reading of a promising but still sketchy set of experimental results. "I think these findings are really fantastic and it's clear that there's a lot of connection between mind and body," says Arthur Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. He remains skeptical, though, that the roots of higher cognition will be found in something as basic as the way we walk or move our eyes or arms. "Any time there's a fad in science there's a tendency to say, 'It's all because of this,"' Markman says. "But the thing in psychology is that it's not all anything, otherwise we'd be done figuring it out already."
Don't Just Stand There, Think