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Gregory Bateson

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Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson (9 May 1904 – 4 July 1980) was an English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. He had a natural ability to recognize order and pattern in the universe. In the 1940s he helped extend systems theory/cybernetics to the social/behavioral sciences, and spent the last decade of his life developing a "meta-science" of epistemology to bring together the various early forms of systems theory developing in various fields of science. Some of his most noted writings are to be found in his books, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and Mind and Nature (1979). Angels Fear (published posthumously in 1987) was co-authored by his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson.


Bateson was born in Grantchester in Cambridgeshire, England on 9 May 1904 - the third and youngest son of [Caroline] Beatrice Durham and of the distinguished geneticist William Bateson. The younger Bateson attended Charterhouse School from 1917 to 1921, obtained a BA in biology at St. John's College, Cambridge in 1925, and continued at Cambridge from 1927 to 1929. Bateson lectured in linguistics at the University of Sydney in 1928. From 1931 to 1937 he was a Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, spent the years before World War II in the South Pacific in New Guinea and Bali doing anthropology. During 1936-1950 he was married to Margaret Mead[2]. At that time he applied his knowledge to the war effort before moving to the United States.

 In Palo Alto, California, Gregory Bateson and his colleagues Donald Jackson, Jay Haley and John H. Weakland developed the double bind theory (see also Bateson Project).[3]

One of the threads that connects Bateson's work is an interest in the scientific paradigm of systems theory and cybernetics; as one of the original members of the core group of the Macy Conferences he extended their application to the social/behavioral sciences. Bateson's take on these fields centres upon their relationship to epistemology, and this central interest provides the undercurrents of his thought. His association with the editor and author Stewart Brand was part of a process by which Bateson’s influence widened — for from the 1970s until Bateson’s last years, a broader audience of university students and educated people working in many fields came not only to know his name but also into contact to varying degrees with his thought.

In 1956, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Bateson was a member of William Irwin Thompson's Lindisfarne Association. In the 1970s, he taught at the Humanistic Psychology Institute in San Francisco—which is now Saybrook University[4]--and also served as a lecturer and fellow of Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976.[5] In 1978, California Governor Jerry Brown appointed Bateson to the Board of Regents of the University of California, in which position he served until his death.

Personal life

Bateson's life was greatly affected by the death of his two brothers. John Bateson (1898–1918), the eldest of the three, was killed in World War I. Martin Bateson (1900–1922), the second brother, was then expected to follow in his father's footsteps as a scientist, but came into conflict with William over his ambition to become a poet and playwright. The resulting stress, combined with a disappointment in love, resulted in Martin's public suicide by gunshot under the statue of Anteros in Piccadilly Circus on 22 April 1922, which was John's birthday. After this event, which transformed a private family tragedy into public scandal, all William and Beatrice's ambitious expectations fell on Gregory Bateson, their only surviving son.[6]

Bateson's first marriage, in 1936, was to American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead.[7] Bateson and Mead had a daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson (born 1939), who also became an anthropologist.[8]

Bateson decided to separate from Mead in 1947, and they were formally divorced in 1950.[9] Bateson then married his second wife, Elizabeth "Betty" Sumner (1919–1992), in 1951.[10] She was the daughter of the Episcopalian Bishop of Chicago, Walter Taylor Sumner. They had a son, John Sumner Bateson (born 1952), as well as twins who died in infancy. Bateson and Sumner were divorced in 1957, after which Bateson married his third wife, therapist and social worker Lois Cammack (born 1928), in 1961. They had one daughter, Nora Bateson (born 1969).[10] Nora married drummer Dan Brubeck, son of jazz musician Dave Brubeck.


Early Work

Bateson’s beginning years as an anthropologist were spent floundering, lost without a specific objective in mind. He began first with a trip to New Guinea, spurred by mentor A. C. Haddon.[11] His goal, as suggested by Haddon, was to explore the effects of contact between the Sepik natives and whites. Unfortunately for Bateson, his time spent with the Baining of New Guinea was halted and difficult. The Baining turned out to be secretive and excluded him from many aspects of their society. On more than one occasion Bateson was tricked into missing communal activities, and held out on their religion.[11] Bateson left them, frustrated. He next studied the Sulka, another native population of New Guinea. Although the Sulka were dramatically different from the Baining, and their culture much more “visible” to the observer, Bateson felt their culture was dying, which left him feeling dispirited and discouraged.[11]

He experienced more success with the Iatmul, another native people of the Sepik River region of New Guinea. Bateson would always return to the idea of communications and relations or interactions between and among people. The observations he made of the Iatmul allowed him to develop his term “schismogenesis.” Bateson studied the “naven,” an Iatmul ceremony in which the gender roles were reversed and exaggerated; men dressed in the women’s work skirts, and women dressed up in the clothing of the men.[11] The point of this ceremonial ritual was to applaud a child for having completed an adult act for the first time. The mother’s brother (of the child) would dress in a woman’s skirts and simulate copulation, as a woman.[11] Bateson suggested the influence of a circular system of causation, and proposed that:

Women watched for the spectacular performances of the men, and there can be no reasonable doubt that the presence of an audience is a very important factor in shaping the men's behavior. In fact, it is probable that the men are more exhibitionistic because the women admire their performances. Conversely, there can be no doubt that the spectacular behavior is a stimulus which summons the audience together, promoting in the women the appropriate behavior.[11]

In short, the behavior of person X affects person Y, and the reaction of person Y to person X’s behavior will then affect person X’s behavior, which in turn will affect person Y, and so on. Bateson called this the “vicious circle”.[11] He then discerned two models of schismogenesis: symmetrical and complementary.[11] Symmetrical relationships are those in which the two parties are equals, competitors, such as in sports. Complementary relationships feature an unequal balance, such as dominance-submission (parent-child), or exhibitionism-spectatorship (performer-audience). Bateson’s experiences with the Iatmul led him to write a book titled chronicling the Iatmul’s ceremonial rituals and discussing the structure and function of their culture.

He next traveled to Bali with his new wife Margaret Mead. They studied the people of the Balinese village Bajoeng Gede. Here, Lipset states, “in the short history of ethnographic fieldwork, film was used both on a large scale and as the primary research tool”.[11] Indeed, Bateson took 25,000 photographs of their Balinese subjects.[12]

Bateson discovered that the people of Bajoeng Gede raised their children very unlike children raised in Western societies. Instead of attention being paid to a child who was displaying a climax of emotion (love or anger), Balinese mothers would ignore them. Bateson notes, “The child responds to [a mother’s] advances with either affection or temper, but the response falls into a vacuum. In Western cultures, such sequences lead to small climaxes of love or anger, but not so in Bali. At the moment when a child throws its arms around the mother’s neck or bursts into tears, the mother’s attention wanders”.[11] This model of stimulation and refusal was also seen in other areas of the culture. Bateson later described the style of Balinese relations as stasis instead of schismogenesis. Their interactions were “muted” and did not follow the schismogenetic process because they did not often escalate competition, dominance, or submission.[11]

The anthropologists Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead contrasted first and Second-order cybernetics with this diagram in an interview in 1973.[13]

Bateson's encounter with Mead on the Sepik river (Chapter 16) and their life together in Bali (Chapter 17) is described in Mead's autobiography "Blackberry Winter - My Earlier Years" (Angus and Robertson. London. 1973). Catherine's birth in New York on December 8, 1939 is recounted in Chapter 18.

Double bind

Main article: double bind

In 1956 in Palo Alto Gregory Bateson and his colleagues Donald Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland [3] articulated a related theory of schizophrenia as stemming from double bind situations. The perceived symptoms and confusing statements of schizophrenics were therefore an expression of this distress, and should be valued as a cathartic and transformative experience. The double bind refers to a communication paradox described first in families with a schizophrenic member. In Steps to an Ecology of Mind Bateson cites Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh, as the first place where double binds were described (but not labeled). The semi-autobiographical novel was about Victorian hypocrisy and cover-up.

Full double bind requires several conditions to be met:

  1. The victim of double bind receives contradictory injunctions or emotional messages on different levels of communication (for example, love is expressed by words, and hate or detachment by nonverbal behaviour; or a child is encouraged to speak freely, but criticised or silenced whenever he or she actually does so).
  2. No metacommunication is possible – for example, asking which of the two messages is valid or describing the communication as making no sense.
  3. The victim cannot leave the communication field.
  4. Failing to fulfill the contradictory injunctions is punished (for example, by withdrawal of love).

The double bind was originally presented (probably mainly under the influence of Bateson's psychiatric co-workers) as an explanation of part of the etiology of schizophrenia. Currently, it is considered to be more important as an example of Bateson's approach to the complexities of communication which is what he understood it to be.

Somatic Change in Evolution

According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary the term somatic is basically defined as the body or body cells of change distinguished from germplasm or psyche/mind. Gregory Bateson writes about how the actual physical changes in the body occur within evolutionary processes.[14] He describes this through the introduction of the concept of “economics of flexibility”.[14] In his conclusion he makes seven statements or theoretical positions which may be supported by his ideology.

The first is the idea that although environmental stresses have theoretically been believed to guide or dictate the changes in the soma (physical body), the introduction of new stresses do not automatically result in the physical changes necessary for survival as suggested by original evolutionary theory.[14] In fact the introduction of these stresses can greatly weaken the organism. An example that he gives is the sheltering of a sick person from the weather or the fact that someone who works in an office would have a hard time working as a rock climber and vice versa. The second position states that though “the economics of flexibility has a logical structure-each successive demand upon flexibility fractioning the set of available possibilities”.[14] This means that theoretically speaking each demand or variable creates a new set of possibilities. Bateson’s third conclusion is “that the genotypic change commonly makes demand upon the adjustive ability of the soma”.[14] This, he states, is the commonly held belief among biologists although there is no evidence to support the claim. Added demands are made on the soma by sequential genotypic modifications is the fourth position. Through this he suggests the following three expectations[14]:

  1. The idea that organisms that have been through recent modifications will be delicate.
  2. The belief that these organisms will become progressively harmful or dangerous.
  3. That over time these new “breeds” will become more resistant to the stresses of the environment and change in genetic traits.

The fifth theoretical position which Bateson believes is supported by his data is that characteristics within an organism that have been modified due to environmental stresses may coincide with genetically determined attributes.[14] His sixth position is that it takes less economic flexibility to create somatic change than it does to cause a genotypic modification. The seventh and final theory he believes to be supported is the idea that in rare occasions there will be populations whose changes will not be in accordance with the thesis presented within this paper. According to Bateson, none of these positions (at the time) could be tested but he called for the creation of a test which could possibly prove or disprove the theoretical positions suggested within.[14]

Ecological Anthropology and Cybernetics

In his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson applied cybernetics to the field of ecological anthropology and the concept of homeostasis.[15] He saw the world as a series of systems containing those of individuals, societies and ecosystems. Within each system is found competition and dependency. Each of these systems has adaptive changes which depend upon feedback loops to control balance by changing multiple variables. Bateson believed that these self-correcting systems were conservative by controlling exponential slippage. He saw the natural ecological system as innately good as long as it was allowed to maintain homeostasis[15] and that the key unit of survival in evolution was an organism and his environment.[15]

Bateson also viewed that all three systems of the individual, society and ecosystem were all together a part of one supreme cybernetic system that controls everything instead of just interacting systems.[15] This supreme cybernetic system is beyond the self of the individual and could be equated to what many people refer to as God, though Bateson referred to it as the Mind.[15] While the Mind is a cybernetic system, it can only be distinguished as a whole and not parts. Bateson felt the Mind was immanent in the messages and pathways of the supreme cybernetic system. He saw the root of system collapses as a result of Occidental or Western epistemology. According to Bateson consciousness is the bridge between the cybernetic networks of individual, society and ecology and that the mismatch between the systems due to improper understanding will be result in the degradation of the entire supreme cybernetic system or Mind. Bateson saw consciousness as developed through Occidental epistemology was at direct odds with the Mind.[15]

At the heart of the matter is scientific hubris. Bateson argues that Occidental epistemology perpetuates a system of understanding which is purpose or means-to-an-end driven.[15] Purpose controls attention and narrows perception, thus limiting what comes into consciousness and therefore limiting the amount of wisdom that can be generated from the perception. Additionally Occidental epistemology propagates the false notion of that man exists outside the Mind and this leads man to believe in what Bateson calls the philosophy of control based upon false knowledge.[15]

Bateson presents Occidental epistemology as a method of thinking that leads to a mindset in which man exerts an autocratic rule over all cybernetic systems.[15] In exerting his autocratic rule man changes the environment to suit him and in doing so he unbalances the natural cybernetic system of controlled competition and mutual dependency. The purpose driven accumulation of knowledge ignores the supreme cybernetic system and leads to the eventual breakdown of the entire system. Bateson claims that man will never be able to control the whole system because it does not operate in a linear fashion and if man creates his own rules for the system, he opens himself up to becoming a slave to the self-made system due to cybernetics non-linear nature. Lastly man’s technological prowess combined with his scientific hubris gives him to potential to irrevocably damage and destroy the supreme cybernetic system instead of just disrupting the system temporally until the system can self-correct.[15]

Bateson argues for a position of humility and acceptance of the natural cybernetic system instead of scientific arrogance as a solution.[15] He believes that humility can come about by abandoning the view of operating through consciousness alone. Consciousness is but only one way in which to obtain knowledge and without complete knowledge of the entire cybernetic system disaster is inevitable. The limited conscious must be combined with the unconscious in complete synthesis. Only when thought and emotion are combined in whole is man able to obtain complete knowledge. He believed that religion and art are some of the few areas in which a man is acting as a whole individual in complete consciousness. By acting with this greater wisdom of the supreme cybernetic system as a whole man can change his relationship to the Mind from one of symmetry, in which he is endlessly tried up in constant competition, to one of complementary. Bateson argues for a culture that promotes the most general wisdom and is able to flexibly change within the supreme cybernetic system.[15]

Other terms used by Bateson

  • Abduction. Used by Bateson to refer to a third scientific methodology (along with induction and deduction) which was central to his own holistic and qualitative approach. Refers to a method of comparing patterns of relationship, and their symmetry or asymmetry (as in, for example, comparative anatomy), especially in complex organic (or mental) systems. The term was originally coined by American Philosopher/Logician Charles Sanders Peirce, who used it to refer to the process by which scientific hypotheses are generated.
  • Criteria of Mind (from Mind and Nature A Necessary Unity):[15]
  1. Mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
  2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference.
  3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
  4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
  5. In mental process the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (that is, coded versions) of the difference which preceded them.
  6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation discloses a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.
  • Creatura and Pleroma. Borrowed from Carl Jung who applied these gnostic terms in his "Seven Sermons To the Dead".[16] Like the Hindu term maya, the basic idea captured in this distinction is that meaning and organization are projected onto the world. Pleroma refers to the non-living world that is undifferentiated by subjectivity; Creatura for the living world, subject to perceptual difference, distinction, and information.
  • Deuterolearning. A term he coined in the 1940s referring to the organization of learning, or learning to learn:[17]
  • Schismogenesis - the emergence of divisions within social groups.
  • Information - Bateson defined information as "a difference which makes a difference." For Bateson, information in fact mediated Alfred Korzybski's map–territory relation, and thereby resolved, according to Bateson, the mind-body problem.[18][19][20]

See also


  • Bateson, G. (1958 (1936)). Naven: A Survey of the Problems suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe drawn from Three Points of View. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-804-70520-8.
  • Bateson, G., Mead, M. (1942). Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis. New York Academy of Sciences. ISBN 0890727805.
  • Ruesch, J., Bateson, G. (1951). Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. W.W. Norton & Company. ISBN 039302377X.
  • Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-03905-6.
  • Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity (Advances in Systems Theory, Complexity, and the Human Sciences). Hampton Press. ISBN 1-57273-434-5.
  • (published posthumously), Bateson, G., Bateson, MC. (1988). Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0553345810.
  • (published posthumously), Bateson, G., Donaldson, Rodney E. (1991). A Sacred Unity: Further Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-250110-3.
Articles, a selection
  • 1956, Bateson, G., Jackson, D. D., Jay Haley & Weakland, J., "Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia", Behavioral Science, vol.1, 1956, 251-264. (Reprinted in Steps to an Ecology of Mind)
  • Bateson, G. & Jackson, D. (1964). "Some varieties of pathogenic organization. In Disorders of Communication". Research Publications (Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease) 42: 270–283.
  • 1978, Malcolm, J., "The One-Way Mirror" (reprinted in the collection "The Purloined Clinic"). Ostensibly about family therapist Salvador Minuchin, essay digresses for several pages into a meditation on Bateson's role in the origin of family therapy, his intellectual pedigree, and the impasse he reached with Jay Haley.
Documentary film
  • Trance and Dance in Bali, a short documentary film shot by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in the 1930s, but it was not released until 1952. In 1999 the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.


  • Bateson is often given as the origin of the story concerning the replacement of the huge oak beams of the main hall of New College, Oxford with trees planted on college land several hundred years previously for that express purpose.[21] Although the precise facts do not entirely match the story, it is commonly cited as an admirable example of planning ahead.[22]
  • The character of Albert James in Tim Parks' 2008 novel "Dreams of Rivers and Seas" is loosely based on Bateson.[23]


  1. ^ Thomas Hylland Eriksen, "Bateson and the North Sea Ethnicity paradigm", folk.uio.no
  2. ^ NNBD, Gregory Bateson, Soylent Communications, 2007.
  3. ^ a b Bateson, G.; Jackson, D. D.; Haley, J.; Weakland, J. (1956). "Toward a theory of schizophrenia". Behavioral Science 1: 251–264. doi:10.1002/bs.3830010402
  4. ^ Saybrook.edu
  5. ^ "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. http://www.amacad.org/publications/BookofMembers/ChapterB.pdf. Retrieved May 21, 2011.
  6. ^ Schuetzenberger, Anne. The Ancestor Syndrome. New York, Routledge. 1998.
  7. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (2007). "Gregory Bateson". Britannica Concise Encyclopedia, 5 August 2007. Retrieved from concise.britannica.com.
  8. ^ www.marycatherinebateson.com
  9. ^ To Cherish the Life of the World: Selected Letters of Margaret Mead. Margaret M. Caffey and Patricia A. Francis, eds. With foreword by Mary Catherine Bateson. New York. Basic Books. 2006.
  10. ^ a b Idem.
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lipset, David (1982). Gregory Bateson the Legacy of a Scientist. Beacon Press.
  12. ^ Harries-Jones, Peter (1995). A Recursive Vision: Ecological Understanding and Gregory Bateson. University of Toronto Press.
  13. ^ Interview with Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, in: CoEvolutionary Quarterly, June 1973.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Bateson, Gregory (1963) (in : Evolution). The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution. 17. pp. 529–539.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Bateson, Gregory (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-03905-6.
  16. ^ Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Vintage Books, 1961, ISBN 0-394-70268-9, p. 378
  17. ^ Visser, Max (2002). Managing knowledge and action in organizations; towards a behavioral theory of organizational learning. EURAM Conference, Organizational Learning and Knowledge Management, Stockholm, Sweden.
  18. ^ Form, Substance, and Difference, in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 448-466
  19. ^ plato.acadiau.ca
  20. ^ Scholar.google.com
  21. ^ Brand, Stewart, How Buildings Learn; what happens after they're built, Penguin, 1994, pp130-1
  22. ^ MSGboard.snopes.com
  23. ^ Sinha, Indra (9 August 2008). "Double trouble in Delhi". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/aug/09/fiction.

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