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December 11, 2003

Do people think in binary?

Human beings have a problem "recognizing" numbers of objects much beyond half a dozen, at which point they start "counting." One, two and three seem almost primally hard-wired into the human conception of numeracy[1]. I have spoken several times about the problem of human typologies, where people tend to enforce you into their own conceptions.

One of the most common examples is of the Left vs. Right dichotomy. As a libertarian most often I am classed as a "conservative" (an appellation which I accept now more or less)-but some conservatives will label me a "liberal." It would often occur in college that I would mention I was a libertarian, and later someone to refer to me as a conservative, and I would correct them, and they would look at me confused and assert, "Yeah, a conservative."

Racially this happens in the United States when people speak of race. Until recently the discourse has been in terms of black and white. Back in 2000 when Bill Bradley was making race a central issue in his campaign a Latino reporter asked him on a West coast swing where his own group fell into Bradley's plans. The candidate was confused and didn't have any proper response. For him, America was still in black or white.

I could go on. But it was triggered in this train of thought by responses to the God's Chosen post.

1) Someone asks if the Jews of Kaifeng are Sephardic or Ashkenazi
2) Godless and I answer they're neither, I make a citation of their Persian origins, and jaimie elaborates on this point.
3) Someone again asks if they are Sephardic or Ashkenazi (said person who even cited evidence they are neither)
4) Again, there is a restatement there are other types of Jews

To non-Jews in the West, the Sephardic/Ashkenazi dichotomy is so iconic that groups like Yemenis and Bukharans are reinterpreted in this system with caveats. It is in fact a rather peculiar situation.

This binary mode of thinking is pretty frustrating, but it obviously has deep roots. There are The People and The Others. Among The People there are many kinds with all sorts of differences. The Others on the other hand are an amorphous group who are hard to distinguish.

Short illustrative historical vignette: When the Chinese arrived in Calicut on the southern Indian Malabar coast in the early 15th century, they noted two religions:


  • Muslims (who were merchants)
  • "Buddhists" (who were the ruling class and the peasants)

A few decades later, the Portuguese noted two different religions Malabar as well:

  • Muslims (who were merchants)
  • "Christians" (who were the ruling class and the peasants)

The point? There are Christians in the Malabar region, but the Europeans were not familiar with Hindus, so they assumed that Muslims == Buddhists. Some would argue that the very idea of Hinduism as a religious confession (rather than just the indigenous traditions of India) arose in response to the expansion of Islam, just as "Shinto" became an identifiable religion after the arrival of Buddhism.

fn1. See The Number Sense & The Math Gene.

Posted by razib at 05:10 PM