Does the Binary Feature Signal Greater Complexity?

Alice C. Linsley


Biblical Anthropology delves into the oldest layers of the biblical material looking for information that is anthropologically significant in reconstructing cultural antecedents. This approach has proved extremely useful in gaining a clearer picture of Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors. A fascinating aspect of their worldview is its binary feature, which I discuss here.

This binary feature has been studied by other anthropologists, the most famous of whom is Claude Lévi-Strauss who observed binary thinking among preliterate Amazon tribes. In his book, Le cru et le cuit, Strauss explores cultural perceptions of natural/raw-prepared/cooked, and other oppositions within primitive cultures.

Lévi-Strauss dedicated himself to searching for the "underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity." He argued on the basis of his anthropological findings that the primitive mind has the same structures or patterns as the civilized mind. These observations culminated in his famous book Tristes Tropiques, which positioned him as the central figure in the structuralist school.

Levi-Strauss and others have noted that the binary sets are the basis of complex thought about the world. Similarly, computer science demonstrates that great complexity emerges from binary language.

Abraham's Nilo-Saharan ancestors named in the the Genesis king Lists observed binary sets in the order of creation, such as east-west, male-female, day-night, dry-wet, raw-cooked, life-death, and heaven-earth. Further, they observed these binary sets as a fixed or unchanging reality. We might speculate that this fixed binary feature led to the metaphysical conception of the Creator as immutable, but we would be getting ahead of ourselves.

The question is whether there is evidence in the history of biological life on Earth for binary features being antecedent to the emergence of greater complexity?

The fossil record certainly suggests that this is the case. The earliest fossils (shown below) are neither vegetation nor animal. They are without symmetry and binary features. In the Precambrian organisms we find neither bilateralism nor any bivalves. Once these features emerge we begin to see greater diversity and complexity (the so-called Cambrian "explosion" which lasted 90 million years).

Diskgama buttonii



Among archaic humans we find both bilateralism and a bicameral brain. Add to this the ability to observe binary sets and ponder relationships. The smallest brained Australopithecus would have noted the distinctions of night-day and raw-cooked. He also would have recognized a mystery in that there are in-between moments. There is that mysterious moment just before dawn and that moment when the food is no longer raw, yet not quite cooked. He would have observed that the Sun always rises over a mountain in the east and casts the mountain's shadow, yet there are no shadows when it is directly overhead. Thus to the binary aspect is added an in-between category and the recognition of something mysterious.

Lucy's brain was small, but with both anatomical and external binary features, she had the basis for more complex thought such as mentioned above.

Additionally, there is another level of complexity that emerges from recognition of binary sets. It is synecdoche in which totality is expressed by contrasting parts. This is expressed in figures of speech such as: "I searched high and low" or "He worked day and night." These merisms reflect greater complexity of thought, yet synedoche is found in the oldest layers of the Genesis material, as has been observed by Cyrus Herzl Gordon. He notes that the phrase “good and evil”( טוֹב וָרָע ) is a merism and this is verified by the context. The serpent urges Eve to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil so that she might become like God who knows everything (Gen. 3:1-5).

Brain size, therefore, is likely over-estimated in assessments of the complexity of thought among archaic humans. Why not direct attention to the discovery of evidence of recognition of binary features and the emergence of complex thought among archaic humans? This is right up Biblical Anthropology's alley!


Related reading: The Binary Aspect of the Biblical WorldviewLevi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary OppositionsWas Lucy Human?Meat Consumption Three Million Years Ago

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Comment by Alice C. Linsley on August 16, 2013 at 12:08am

Hi, John.

That's Biblical Anthropology, and this is a speculative piece, obviously.  I appreciate your feedback!

The Yin Yang is interesting because it is rooted in the older religion of Tian, the oldest name for the Creator in China. Tian means the Most High of the Anu.  The Anu or Ainu did indeed hold a binary worldview which was based on their observations of the Sun.  The Sun was held to be greater than the moon, the light greater than the shadow. So in this view too, at least in its origin, there is dominance on one side. That is what I'm wondering about... is this a general pattern in Nature?

For example, the cerebral hemispheres exhibit strong bilateral symmetry in structure and function. That said, the left hemisphere has some dominant features. The lateral sulcus generally is longer in the left hemisphere than in the right, and Broca's area and Wernicke's area are present only in the left hemisphere in greater than 95% of the population. Thus the human brain exhibits both functional and structural asymmetry in the binary feature.

Just thinking out loud.

Comment by John McCreery on August 13, 2013 at 5:15am

Two thoughts.

The leap from bilateral anatomy to binary oppositions to Biblical archeology is far too quick and sloppy, a kind of whig-history storytelling that ignores the various forms that binary oppositions can take. Note, for example, the most famous of all binary oppositions, the Yin and the Yang, part of a Chinese cosmology that envisions a world in constant flux, with no creator deity, and no beginning or ending. 

Which leads me to my second thought: The ubiquity of binary oppositions means that to identify one is to say very little at all. The concept only becomes useful when the variety of binary oppositions is taken into account. After all, what the 0 and 1 of digital technology demonstrates most clearly is that stringing enough contrasts together we can simulate to any desired degree of accuracy all sorts of amazingly complicated things. Consider just music, for example, the same 0s and 1s produce uncannily vivid renderings of music as different as that played on sitar, shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) and violin; heavy metal and Mozart. Ditto for shades of color on Apple's Retina displays. 

The fact of the matter is that binary oppositions only become interesting when we get down to details. Mary Douglas is an excellent guide here, starting with Purity and Danger. What's interesting isn't that Leviticus taboos some animals as food, but the singularness of the set of animals so banned. What have pigs to do with lobsters? Douglas' answer that both are category violations, which leads to investigation of what the categories being violated are about. We are asked to consider in detail the whole constellation of categories in question, which cannot be reduced to any one binary contrast. 

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