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).
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 Worldview; Levi-Strauss and Derrida on Binary Oppositions; Was Lucy Human?; Meat Consumption Three Million Years Ago