The Math Instinct

Devlin, Keith

Devlin, K. (2005). The math instinct: Why you’re a mathematical genius (along with lobsters, birds, cats and dogs). New York, N.Y.: Thunder’s Mouth Press.




Keith Delvin begins the book by referencing studies showing that babies as young as four months old understand the basics of addition and subtraction. From these findings, he concludes that every human has a math instinct. Through this idea, the author gives the reader more confidence towards the subject of math. The text then discusses how animals exhibit the ability to understand math concepts such as when Elvis the Welsh Corgi choses to run an arc when fetching a ball, causing the ball’s trajectory to look like a straight line. Next the author reviews what the study of mathematics entails, assuming that the reader has very little knowledge of the subject. A brief history of major contributions from mathematicians including Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz emphasizes the capability of the human brain. Delvin ties the mathematical legends back to the natural math instinct found in every human and animal. Specifically, he covers the math behind patterns of migration. His connection between the two emphasizes his main argument that the reader, like every living being, is a math genius. In the subsequent section, the text presents an overview on nature’s architects: plants and animals that create structures reflecting geometric concepts. Then the author outlines the math of motion and vision. Finally, Delvin instructs the reader on how to tap into his/her mathematical instinct. His recommendations include gaining an awareness of math in nature, approaching abstract math as a formalized version of the reader’s innate math ability, and recognizing the advantages to school methods.


Delvin breaks down complex math topics into relatable situations for the math hesitant reader. He shies away from overwhelming math vocabulary and instead explains each concept in layman’s terms. An upper middle or early high school student could easily pick up the book and read through without too much help, as indicated by the Flesch-Kincaid score of 9.1. Some of the math concepts, while broken down well, may be difficult or uninteresting for an early high schooler. With help, a freshman or sophomore with an interest in math would learn from and enjoy the book. An upper level math student who struggles with math would have the previous exposure to the topics and could therefore strengthen his/her math knowledge through reading the text. While Delvin tries to address an audience with little experience in the topics, a reader who has studied geometry, trigonometry, and algebra previously would more easily grasp the concepts and the connection to the real world. Therefore, the book would be most appropriate for an ambitious middle or early high school child or for an upper high schooler who needs a confidence builder.

Use in Class

The text spends a great deal of time discussing the math instinct in animals. Delvin references studies involving lobsters, birds, cats, and dogs. From my experience, there are a number of high school students with a great interest in animals. In a Junior or Senior IB Studies class, I would expect many students to have an idea of what they would like to study in college. I would identify those students who have an interested in animal sciences or biology and allow class time for group reading where the groups read different books aloud to each other. The animal enthusiasts would be put into one group with this book while the other groups read alternative texts based on their own interests. The reading would relate to the textbook chapter we are studying at the time.

Unit Focus


Submitted by Courtney Trost

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