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In doing a bit of background reading for this question I came across a section in the book Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind on page 602 stating:

There are no sex-related differences in biological primary mathematical skills, even in nonhuman primates

And later defines secondary mathematical skills as

the kinds of math taught in schools in the industrialized world

But it doesn't define what primary mathematical skills are.

Can anyone explain what is meant by the term?

Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of The Mind, 2nd ed. M. S. Gazzaniga, R. B. Ivry, G. R. Mangun.

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

The term seems to come from David C. Geary's 1995 article. Here's the abstract with full-text link below:

An evolution-based framework for understanding biological and cultural influences on children's cognitive and academic development is presented. The utility of this framework is illustrated within the mathematical domain and serves as a foundation for examining current approaches to educational reform in the United States. Within this framework, there are two general classes of cognitive ability, biologically primary and biologically secondary. Biologically primary cognitive abilities appear to have evolved largely by means of natural or sexual selection. Biologically secondary cognitive abilities reflect the co-optation of primary abilities for purposes other than the original evolution-based function and appear to develop only in specific cultural contexts. A distinction between these classes of ability has important implications for understanding children's cognitive development and achievement.

You can read more about David C. Geary's articles on mathematics on his website.


  • Geary, D. C. (1995). Reflections of evolution and culture in children's cognition: Implications for mathematical development and instruction. American Psychologist, 50, 24-37. FULL TEXT
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