The Charm of the Scout

Gregory Bateson
Gregory Bateson; drawing by David Levine

In the literature and movies of the American Frontier the scout is usually depicted as a roughly clad eccentric who leaves the safety of the settlement and reappears unpredictably, bringing a mixture of firsthand reports, rumors, and warnings about the wilderness ahead—together with a tantalizing collection of plant specimens, animal skins, and rock samples, not all of which are fool’s gold. At first the settlers find the scout’s help indispensable; but once their community begins to consolidate he becomes a figure of fun; and finally, after respectability has set in, he is a positive embarrassment. Yet their premature respectability is vulnerable. When the settlement is struck by drought, the scout’s nature lore leads the settlers to hidden springs of underground water, but once the crisis is past, respectability reemerges, and the scout is ridden out to the town line.

Within the world of the American behavioral sciences, Gregory Bateson has always had the scout’s ambiguous status. He himself has never been an orthodox academic, either in his position or in his activities. With grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and other agencies, he has done his research in a Veterans Administration hospital in California, at the Oceanographic Institute in Hawaii where he studied the behavior and communication of dolphins, and most recently as a benevolent presence on the University of California campus at Santa Cruz. The disciplinary respectabilities of the academic world have meant little to him. For more than forty years, he has been publishing books and papers on any subject to which he had something to contribute.

He has written with equal fluency about animal behavior and anthropology, communication theory and evolution, paralinguistics and schizophrenia. His achievements have challenged the professional ambitions of academic behavioral scientists in this country to establish self-contained “disciplines” within the human sciences as autonomous and well defined as those in the physical and biological sciences. Again and again, just when the professionals began to get themselves nicely settled, Gregory Bateson reappeared in their midst, with arguments to demonstrate that their theoretical and methodological certainties were uncertain. No wonder many of them have found his work exasperating as well as admirable.

Born in 1904, Gregory Bateson comes from the aristocracy of British intellectual life that Francis Galton described in such books as Hereditary Genius. His father, William Bateson, was a major figure in the revival of Mendelian genetics after 1900, and the Batesons moved among the Huxleys, the Darwins, and the other luminaries of English (particularly, of Cambridge) natural science. Gregory’s own imagination quickly drew him beyond the boundaries of biology into anthropology; yet he has preserved a first-rate understanding of the biological sciences, which play a significant part in his new book. On a field trip to New Guinea in 1936 he met Margaret Mead, and since then his life has been centered in the United States. (Mary Catherine Bateson, their daughter,…

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