Around A.D. 1200 Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) discovered that a few weeks after putting 2 male rabbits plus 2 female rabbits in the same cage, he ended up with considerably more than 4 rabbits. Fearing that too strong a challenge to the value 4 given in Euclid would meet with opposition, Leonardo conservatively stated, "2 + 2 is more like 5 than 4." Even this cautious rendition of his data was roundly condemned and earned Leonardo the nickname "Blockhead." By the way, his practice of underestimating the number of rabbits persisted; his celebrated model of rabbit populations had each birth consisting of only two babies, a gross underestimate if ever there was one.
Some 400 years later, the thread was picked up once more, this time by the French mathematicians. Descartes announced, "I think 2 + 2 = 5; therefore it does." However, others objected that his argument was somewhat less than totally rigorous. Apparently, Fermat had a more rigorous proof which was to appear as part of a book, but it and other material were cut by the editor so that the book could be printed with wider margins. Between the fact that no definitive proof of 2 + 2 = 5 was available and the excitement of the development of calculus, by 1700 mathematicians had again lost interest in the equation. In fact, the only known 18th-century reference to 2 + 2 = 5 is due to the philosopher Bishop Berkeley who, upon discovering it in an old manuscript, wryly commented, "Well, now I know where all the departed quantities went to -- the right-hand side of this equation." That witticism so impressed California intellectuals that they named a university town after him.
But in the early to middle 1800's, 2 + 2 began to take on great significance. Riemann developed an arithmetic in which 2 + 2 = 5, paralleling the Euclidean 2 + 2 = 4 arithmetic. Moreover, during this period Gauss produced an arithmetic in which 2 + 2 = 3. Naturally, there ensued decades of great confusion as to the actual value of 2 + 2. Because of changing opinions on this topic, Kempe's proof in 1880 of the 4-color theorem was deemed 11 years later to yield, instead, the 5-color theorem. Dedekind entered the debate with an article entitled "Was ist und was soll 2 + 2?" Frege thought he had settled the question while preparing a condensed version of his "Begriffsschrift." This condensation, entitled "Die Kleine Begriffsschrift (The Short Schrift)," contained what he considered to be a definitive proof of 2 + 2 = 5. But then Frege received a letter from Bertrand Russell, reminding him that in "Grundbeefen der Mathematik" Frege had proved that 2 + 2 = 4. This contradiction so discouraged Frege that he abandoned mathematics altogether and went into university administration.
Faced with this profound and bewildering foundational question of the value of 2 + 2, mathematicians followed the reasonable course of action: they just ignored the whole thing. And so everyone reverted to 2 + 2 = 4 with nothing being done with its rival equation during the 20th century. There had been rumors that Bourbaki was planning to devote a volume to 2 + 2 = 5 (the first forty pages taken up by the symbolic expression for the number five), but those rumor remained unconfirmed. Recently, though, there have been reported computer-assisted proofs that 2 + 2 = 5, typically involving computers belonging to utility companies. Perhaps the 21st century will see yet another revival of this historic equation.