Steps to an Ecology of Mind
This collection of previously published essays and lectures amounts to a retrospective exhibition of a working life. Such a suggestion would not disturb a scientist who is not fully satisfied by “the general trend of scientific philosophy associated with such names as Democritus, Galileo, Newton, Lavoisier, and Darwin” and who now advocates a serious look at “the less respectable views of such men as Heraclitus, the alchemists, William Blake, Lamarck, and Samuel Butler.” For these latter,
the motive for scientific inquiry was the desire to build a comprehensive view of the universe which should show what Man is and how he is related to the rest of the universe. The picture which these men were trying to build was ethical and aesthetic.
Gregory Bateson has come to this position during a career that carried him not only into anthropology, for which he was first trained, but into psychiatry too, as well as psychology, genetics, and communication theory. Such personal flexibility in a serious scholar is rare enough, but the open-mindedness of the other professionals who gave him scope could probably have been found during his lifetime only in America. Nowhere else could he have pursued his unorthodox lines of research with so much financial support from official sources and scientific foundations: his very human account—more than a perfunctory acknowledgment—of the aid he received, including support for research that failed, is in itself a document of cultural history.
Casual acquaintance with his writing rests primarily on his “double bind” theory of the causation of schizophrenia, a theory which has influenced R.D. Laing, among many others, and also perhaps on the notion of “schismogenesis” arising out of his early anthropological field work. He himself, as the title of this book implies, would see these particular contributions as points in a much wider sweep of inquiry which examines the nature of mind, seeing it not as a nebulous something, somehow lodged somewhere in the body of each man, but as a network of interactions relating the individual with his society and his species and with the universe at large. He stands therefore among those who object to any simple separation of “organism” from “environment,” and he tries to elaborate a positive conception of the system which together they constitute.
Every organism and all its actions, in his view, are set in a “context” which is no mere background but which shapes and is shaped by every living action. That context has a larger context, which in turn is related to its own context, still wider, and so on in an infinite regress. Bateson goes beyond the more matter-of-fact ecologists who are content to examine the species and its habitat, to whose maintenance or impairment it contributes. He thinks of the interaction between each organism and the total, unimaginably extended ecosystem, which for him becomes a replacement for “God”—rather like Swinburne’s “Hertha”:
One birth of my bosom;
One beam of mine eye…
Man, equal and one with me, man that is made of me, man that is I.
Bateson’s views have strongly appealed in recent years to the younger generation of psychologists and anthropologists, among others. The reason for this appeal is in part that he derived his familiar point of view from developments in scientific thinking, especially cybernetics:
The cybernetic epistemology which I have offered you would suggest a new approach. The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a subsystem. This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by “God,” but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.
Attuned to contemporary conditions, Bateson has included in this book a Preface by Mark Engel, one of his own students, as in bygone times young writers used to get senior colleagues to give a polite prefatory blessing. Commending it “to you, my brothers and sisters of the new culture, in the hope that it will help us on our journey,” Mr. Engel speaks for and to those who are under thirty, many of whom (some with the help of psychedelics) have learned the arbitrariness of perception and “have decided that if reality doesn’t mean what we thought it did then there is no meaning in it at all.” From this position Mr. Engel sees only two escape routes: either religious conversion (and he speaks of having tried Taoism himself) or else, and more difficult, thinking things through, replacing “the low level of what passes for thinking among most of the American academic community” with the kind of better thinking that he finds in Gregory Bateson.
The odd and encouraging thing is that Bateson’s work is thoroughly academic; but he is not afraid to show that for him its importance springs from its relevance to people and their problems, including his own problem of making some sort of sense of his place in the universe. From the late nineteenth-century view of Swinburne’s “Hertha” he replies to the mid-nineteenth-century despair of Edward FitzGerald:
Into this Universe, and Why not knowing
but he frames his reply in contemporary arguments.
The network of relationships which he calls “mind” is essentially the same as the network of interactions involved in the use of a computer. Everything in such a system depends on discriminated items—or, as he would say, just “differences”—and a mutually corrective interaction among them. The computer’s calculations, he argues, are not in themselves a mental process.
The computer is only an arc of a larger circuit which always includes a man and an environment from which information is received and upon which efferent messages from the computer have effect. This total system, or ensemble, may legitimately be said to show mental characteristics. It operates by trial and error and has creative character.
If we are tempted to rephrase this as meaning simply that a man’s “mind” is using the computer as a “tool,” Bateson will have none of such a distinction. He considers a blind man with a stick:
Where does the blind man’s self begin? At the tip of the stick? At the handle of the stick? Or at some point halfway up the stick? These questions are nonsense, because the stick is a pathway along which differences are transmitted under transformation, so that to draw a delimiting line across this pathway is to cut off a part of the systemic circuit which determines the blind man’s locomotion.
He puts it in general terms when he writes,
In no system which shows mental characteristics can any part have unilateral control over the whole. In other words, the mental characteristics of the system are immanent, not in some part, but in the system as a whole.
As a paradigm he takes the system created by a man and the tree that man is chopping down:
Each stroke of the axe is modified or corrected, according to the shape of the cut face of the tree left by the previous stroke. This self-corrective (i.e., mental) process is brought about by a total system, tree-eyes-brain-muscles-axe-stroke-tree, and it is this total system that has the characteristics of immanent mind.
Persuasively as this position is presented, it leaves an uneasy feeling that something has been omitted: naïvely, that the man was somehow decisive, intending the tree to come down—it was not that the tree meant to fall and enlisted a man with an axe. The difficulty with such a wide definition is in knowing whether any ongoing set of interactions is excluded from this notion of the “mental.” A reed shaken by the wind, for instance, bending to strong gusts, recovering, vibrating in eddies—is this and the low-pressure system that produced the wind to be regarded as mental?—or the reciprocally modifying behavior of molecular structures in a chemical reaction? Unfortunately this question of what, on his showing, is not mental receives no clear answer in Bateson’s exposition, and we are left to wonder whether we need the term “mind” when we already have “interaction.”
It remains true, as Bateson rightly insists, that the organism is not to be separated from its environment as if it were a foreign body lodged within it. Man is in a sense a product of the surroundings that he himself so much alters, having lungs because there is air, ears because of sound waves, and so on; he and his ecological niche have been mutually defining themselves throughout the millennia. Yet, once constituted by this process, each species (and each individual) possesses great autonomy, both to evaluate what is outside itself and to initiate action, and the action is far from being immediately checked by environmental feedback. In fact the negative feedback of environmental control may operate too slowly to correct a faulty development by any means short of extinguishing a species. The tree being chopped may participate in corrective feedback but still it will fall. A man, in the short span of his life, may do ecologically outrageous things without suffering in the least. Otherwise he would not be “the most dangerous animal in the world” (as the Bronx Zoo used to label its heavily barred mirror).
Bateson is fully aware of this. He gives ample attention to pollution and the progressive impairment of habitat. But he fails to relate these things clearly to his idea of man-with-environment constituting a “mind”; if it is a mind, it must be a lamentably unsound one. Of course that is not an impossible idea, since even the human mind as conventionally thought of does fearful violence to itself. But if Bateson could have brought out how dangerously independent of its surroundings the human mind can be, at least in the short run, he might also have done more justice to the valuable side of autonomous individuality, especially in society. Some liking for—or toleration of—an ideal of social organization that merges and submerges the individual in the group is evident in his account of the village society which he studied in Bali, where stability is the overriding ideal and rivalries are minimized; individual offenses are corrected by fines imposed by the village, at first very small but rising steeply with any delay in payment,
…and if there be any sign that the offender is refusing to pay—“opposing the village”—the fine is at once raised to an enormous sum and the offender is deprived of membership in the community until he is willing to give up his opposition.
Again, in discussing schizophrenia as the outcome of a social and familial constellation rather than a simply individual “disease,” he suggests that it must be seen as
part of the ecology of ideas in systems or “minds” whose boundaries no longer coincide with the skins of the participant individuals.