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, is herself an anthropological linguist.) Meanwhile, his intellectual curiosity and fertility have led him to build up for himself a circle of friends, such as Erik Erikson, who form a kind of American counterpart to Galton’s intellectual constellation in England.

Gregory Bateson’s background also did much to shape the problems that have been at the center of his thought. He was born at a crucial moment in the scientific debate about Darwinism. During much of its first hundred years, the Darwinian theory drew its main scientific strength from its power to account for the anatomical and physiological forms of living things. From the start, the most convincing physical evidence of evolution took the form of fossils: notably, the sequence of fossil forms by which the discoveries of paleontology were shown to correspond with historical geology. So much so that many people came to think of Darwinism as concerned, above all, with explaining such things as the giraffe’s legs, the hummingbird’s beak, and the coloration of moths.

Yet from the start it was clear that there were two missing elements in the theory as it stood in 1859: the full case for Darwinism must include, also, a convincing theory of genetics and heredity, and an account of the significance of behavior in evolution—that is, an account of mental or psychological evolution. Darwin’s own theory of “pangenes” as the bearer of hereditary features left him, in certain crucial respects, a Lamarckian in his explanations: and it was not until the rediscovery of Mendel’s work that the material was at hand for making serious progress in genetics. Meanwhile, though much of the early debate about evolution focused on behavioral issues (e.g., the evolution of instincts) and though Darwin himself published a book on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals whose full importance is only just being appreciated today, psychological evolution remained largely obscure.


Obscure it might be, but it was also crucial. In a thousand ways, the behavior of living things can make all the difference to their success or failure in the evolutionary selection process. The food that is effectively available to a species in any habitat depends largely on its feeding habits; the giraffe outruns its predators in the wild only because it is biologically equipped to take fright, as well as flight; and the propensities to build webs, dams, and honeycombs are clearly as relevant to the historical fate of spiders, beavers, and bees as the shapes of their legs, tails, and stings. So once the solid foundations for a modern science of genetics had been laid by William Bateson, the outstanding weakness in the Darwinian scheme lay in the realm of behavior. In the long run, the Darwinian “natural philosophy” would carry conviction only if its categories could be expanded to embrace the mental as well as the physical, the psychological as well as the physiological aspects of human and animal nature; showing, for instance, how intelligence, communication, and symbolic expression, quite as much as drives, reflexes, and instincts, can be understood as “advantageous” products of evolution, and explaining all these different mental functions in both healthy and pathological modes of operation.

That has been Gregory Bateson’s central mission. In one way or another, all of his notable contributions to science have sprung from his habit of viewing the mental life and behavior of creatures as functional, adaptive activities that need to be intelligibly related to their evolutionary history and habitat. So, in one phase of his work, he concentrated on animal communication, particularly the “language” of the dolphins. In another, he studied the ways in which living creatures improve their adaptation by learning; he was one of the first to point out the special power that comes with the evolution of a capacity for “learning to learn”—what he called “deuterolearning.”

Elsewhere, Bateson played a pioneering part in the development of paralinguistics and kinesics: i.e., the study of the behavioral adjuncts and contexts of the use of language—including all those different ways in which our use or understanding of words and sentences cues in with our ability to “read” postures and gestures, facial expressions and hand movements, tones and inflections, emphases and hesitations. He was involved in a well-known collaborative project at the Stanford Behavioral Sciences Center on “The Natural History of an Interview” in the mid-1950s, which led to an elaborate system resembling musical staves, to display all the complex signaling modalities involved in the simplest exchanges.

Bateson’s attempt to bring the concepts of semantics and semiotics to bear on the interpretation of behavior paralleled the program of contemporary structuralism and avoided some of its theoretical rigidities. It has also served Bateson well in two other fields. In psychiatry he invented the “double bind” theory to explain how failures in family communication can provoke mental illness: if a parent’s words and nonverbal messages are sufficiently inconsistent and contradictory, a child can be put into a “no win” situation from which the only available exit is into psychopathology. (This theory is now an accepted element in the conceptual repertory of much family and other psychiatric therapy.) In Bateson’s anthropological work, again, he never remained content with labeling a customary dance or ceremony, initiation procedure or mode of dress as “functional,” just because it fitted in with the overall pattern or “structure” of the culture. Like a good evolutionist, he has always demanded to know, also, how it was functional—what message it communicated, what skills it transmitted, or how else it contributed to the viability of the culture, regarded as a successful, well-adapted Lebensform. For Bateson, that is to say, it has always been essential that culture and nature should each make sense from the viewpoint of the other. But he is no reductionist: he is as quick to find “cultural” elements in nature as he is to point out “natural” elements in culture.

To list Gregory Bateson’s achievements in this fragmentary way is, however, misleading. For it distracts our attention from the integrating themes of his work, and makes it appear scrappy. Yet how else can one convey these themes? There is no Bateson’s Law or Bateson’s Theory, no formula to represent his unique thought, as E = mc2 does for Einstein. What links all Bateson’s innovations together, and what his younger associates have been drawn to in his work, is not so much a comprehensive theory about the phenomena of mental evolution as a systematic approach to its problems. In all our thought about human questions—whether about psychology or social science, politics or mental illness, education or language—we should (he insists) never ignore the evolutionary aspects of the questions of who we are and where we are. We should never forget, that is, to ask how our modes of living and thinking, talking and acting contribute to our success or failure as members of populations of natural beings, or fail to consider in what ways other natural beings, too, may share in the same mental heritage of intelligence, communication, and social organization.


So, in the present collection of essays as in its predecessor, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), Bateson attempts to redirect our ways of dealing with human problems in an evolutionary direction. Centuries of formal logic and metaphysics developed in the service of an essentially ahistorical cosmology have (in his view) set our ways of thinking and talking into fixed molds and patterns of kinds that make it hard for us to adopt such an evolutionary approach. In his first few essays, therefore, he seeks to discredit and dismantle the rigid forms of thought generated by that earlier alliance of Aristotelian logic and ontology, Biblical history and pre-Darwinian taxonomy: forms of thought that encourage us to assume that all the basic processes of nature lend themselves readily to unambiguous description, permanent classification, and scientific analysis according to a “linear” conception of causality.

In a chapter called “Every Schoolboy Knows,” he attempts to formulate a view that is better “geared to…the biological world,” offering a series of homely examples to show the fallacies of a scientific view based on coding, conventional description, and quantitative measure divorced from the object or phenomenon that is being measured. Thus every schoolboy knows, or should know, that science “never proves,” but merely “probes”—and probes only as accurately as available instruments permit; like the microscope and telescope, all “improved devices of perception will disclose what was utterly unpredictable from the levels of perception that we could achieve before that discovery.” Moreover, “there are large classes of phenomena where prediction and control are simply impossible”:

Under tension, a chain will break at its weakest link. That much is predictable. What is difficult is to identify the weakest link before it breaks. The generic we can know, but the specific eludes us.

Or, to take another typical example, in defiance of the apparently logical notion that “nothing comes of nothing,” successful evolution can depend on the meaning of zero:

The letter that you do not write, the apology you do not offer, the food that you do not put out for the cat—all these can be sufficient and effective messages because zero, in context, can be meaningful; and it is the recipient of the message who creates the context. This power to create context is the recipient’s skill…. He or she must acquire that skill by learning or by lucky mutation, that is, by a successful raid on the random. The recipient must be, in some sense, ready for the appropriate discovery when it comes.

Bateson understands very well that commitment to a static ontology and taxonomy was the means by which Aristotle was able to harness his newly invented syllogistic process to his scientific world view, and so make formal logic the prime instrument of scientific explanation. It was no wonder that his philosophical successors fell into the habit of construing causal connections as though they were logical connections, so confusing the physically necessary and the logically entailed. Within an evolutionary world picture, by contrast, no descriptions can be trusted to hold good indefinitely, classification systems are all in shorter- or longer-term flux, and our deductive conclusions can be trusted only to the extent that natural events have in fact the character of “convergent” rather than “divergent” sequences.

Bateson’s constructive counterprogram, as set out in the central essays of Mind and Nature, is built around three notions—the necessity for “multiple descriptions” of all natural processes, a “circular” conception of causal interconnections, and the role of “stochastic processes” such as natural selection in generating new modes of adaptation. All of these notions he expounds here with a kaleidoscopic procession of illustrations and allusions. (Many of these are indebted—ironically, as I shall argue later—to the ideas and arguments of Bertrand Russell: notably, Russell’s causal theory of perception and his logical “theory of types.”)

A properly evolutionary way of dealing with experience obliges us to recognize that no event or process has any single unambiguous description: we describe any event in different terms, and view it as an element in a different network of relations, depending on the standpoint from which—and the purposes for which—we are considering it. Nor shall we usually be able to distinguish the “causes” among phenomena from their “effects”: within the organic world, especially in ecological and evolutionary processes, chains of objects and processes are commonly linked together in circles or spirals, so that each of them is implicated in the causal fate of all the others.

The best we can do in such a case is to understand all the interlinked chains within which our affairs are caught up, and consider how they might be modified so as to operate more advantageously as wholes: that is to say, in a way that these entire systems could become better adapted. During much of the twentieth century, from Durkheim and Parsons on, the central conceptions of social and behavioral science have been modeled on those of physiology: system, structure, function. The time has now come, in Bateson’s view—and it is hard to disregard his argument—to look for those central conceptions rather in evolutionary theory: variability, selective pressures, adaptedness.

If that is so, Bateson argues, we must take more seriously the significance of “stochastic” processes: those dual processes, familiar in a whole range of fields from Darwinian theory to economics, in which randomly generated variations combine with external selection procedures to establish new patterns of adaptiveness and “optimization.” In this respect, it is helpful to contrast Gregory Bateson’s position with its direct opposite, as presented most recently in Arthur Koestler’s Janus. Koestler finds the notion repugnant that creative innovations and worthwhile novelties could spring from a series of essentially “random” variations: he denounces this idea wherever it appears—in behaviorist psychology or quantum physics, in neo-Darwinism or the historians’ acceptance of contingency. Great new achievements cannot simply appear out of the blue! New forms of value (Koestler insists) must surely have been provided for beforehand: either by conscious foresight, or by selective imagination, or by some form of neo-Lamarckian causality. Yet that is just what Bateson is denying. Evolutionary ways of thinking, he argues, accustom one to the idea that true originality simply cannot be the outcome of straightforward planning or simple causality alone. Truly novel achievements can be recognized for what they are only after they appear. We then see that they have “proved adaptive” in ways that had not been “provided for beforehand,” either conceptually or causally. And the road to wisdom in the future must begin with the acceptance of that kind of unpredictability in historical events—with the encouragement of innovation, on the one hand, and the better understanding of “adaptation” and “adaptedness” on the other.

To point out that Gregory Bateson does not give us anything approaching a comprehensive theory of mental evolution is not really to criticize his work. For Darwin’s failure to deal fully with the psychological aspects of evolution was no accidental lacuna. Quite apart from the lack of any direct evidence about the behavior of living creatures in earlier epochs, there were some more serious obstacles to any extension of evolutionary ideas into the realm of mind. Darwin’s own teacher, Adam Sedgwick, was only the first of many who feared the consequences of bringing the mental and moral aspects of human nature within the scope of the new evolutionary theory; and even today attempts to move in this direction meet with stiff philosophical resistance. (Sociobiology is only one example.) Before we can reach the stage of developing specific theories of mental evolution, as a result, we need some kind of philosophical reorientation: setting aside the unscrutinized habits of mind that stand in the way of any such extension.

In that respect, the issues Gregory Bateson is concerned with are central to the development of twentieth-century scientific thought and method. The program that generated what we paradoxically call “modern” science, from the time of Descartes and Newton on, began with an act of abstraction whose consequences it has been hard to escape. What Descartes required us to do was not just to divide mind from matter: more importantly he set humanity aside from nature, and established criteria of “rational objectivity” for natural science that placed the scientist himself in the position of a pure spectator. The classic expression was Laplace’s image of the ideal scientist as an omniscient calculator who, knowing the initial positions and velocities of all the atoms in the universe at the moment of its creation, would be able to predict, and give a running commentary on, the entire subsequent history of the universe—but only from outside it. Such a posture is open to us in practice, however, only when the “coupling” between the scientist and his objects of study goes only one way—when he can observe how those objects are behaving without influencing that behavior in the process.

The most significant novelty in twentieth-century science, generally, has been the fact that scientists have run up against the limits of that Cartesian methodology at a dozen different points. As Werner Heisenberg showed us, the required conditions do not fully hold even at the finest level of physical analysis: there, our acts of observation alter the states of the particles we observe. The emergence of psychology as a self-sufficient science (or family of sciences) has equally threatened the traditional claims of Cartesian detachment and objectivity. Most of all—and this is where Bateson’s work comes in—the development of ecology has made it clear just how far, and in how many ways, human life—not least, the life and activities of scientists themselves—is lived within the world of nature that the scientist is seeking to understand. We can no longer view the world as Descartes and Laplace would have us do, as “rational onlookers,” from outside. Our place is within the same world that we are studying, and whatever scientific understanding we achieve must be a kind of understanding that is available to participants within the processes of nature, i.e., from inside.

Some contemporary commentators have, accordingly, concluded that the age of so-called “modern science” is past, and that we are now moving into a period of “postmodern science.” (This phrase was coined by Frederick Ferré.) The point from which any “postmodern” science must start is the need to reinsert humanity into nature. Seen from that standpoint, many of Bateson’s own claims (e.g., that “biological evolution is a mental process”) seem less startling. Once we set ourselves seriously to the task of rebuilding the scientific world picture in a way that accommodates human beings—including scientists—along with all the other inhabitants of the natural world, the need to reintegrate matter and mind follows immediately: indeed, the supposed distinction between “material” and “mental” processes ceases to be terribly useful or fundamental for science.

What makes Gregory Bateson’s work so significant is the fact that he has acted as a prophet of “postmodern” science, in this sense. The shortcomings he has seen in traditional behaviorist psychology and learning theory, in shallow interpretations of biological evolution, formal linguistics, in mechanistic approaches to psychiatry, and so on, have all of them sprung from his basic insight into the weaknesses of the Cartesian methodology as a program for future science. And this same insight explains, also, why he sees the first step toward the necessary philosophical reorientation of the human sciences as calling for a new epistemology.

While the agenda for Bateson’s new book, like the agenda for his whole scientific career, has great merits—not least, philosophical merits—its execution is, all the same, flawed and incomplete. Some of the flaws are in his style and manner. While he can write wisely and thoughtfully, too much of his present argument is shrill and scolding in tone. (In this, he shows some of the less admirable features of a prophet.) By now, the sheer novelty of his program has surely worn off. What we need from a “postmodern” natural philosopher today is not more exhortations to change our ways: rather, we need a careful and detailed examination of what the new methodology implies, both for the separate sciences affected by this transformation, and for the overall integration of the human sciences with the sciences of nature. In this respect, Mind and Nature falls short of its proper objectives. Indeed, at many points the book seems unsure of its intended audience. Given the crucial character of its central themes, one might wish that Bateson had argued his case on a consistently higher plane. Too many of the essays (often with titles like “Every Schoolboy Knows…”) are aimed at elementary, not to say sophomoric readers; and the tags that he chooses to expound (“Sometimes Small Is Beautiful,” “Nothing Will Come of Nothing” and the like) come across as exaggerated or trivial.

Why does he write in this tone? It may reflect the comparative isolation in which Bateson has lived and worked. Somehow, his background seems to have reinforced his sense that he did not need to “prove himself”: his true colleagues all along have been not his contemporaries but his great precursors down the ages. As a result, he has cared too little about other people’s opinions of his work: he could leave a clearer mark, and do more good, by engaging his opponents more closely. As things stand, the present book will strike some of his colleagues as shallow and patronizing; and there is a danger that he will, once again, provoke impatience rather than admiration from those who could most usefully listen to what he says. For those of us who respect his approach to natural philosophy, and who find many of his ideas congenial and appealing, that is a matter for particular regret.

There are also some very real difficulties in the content of his present argument. Early in the book, he sketches out the main lines of an epistemology whose neo-idealist themes (“Science Never Proves Anything,” “There Is No Objective Experience”) will be familiar to readers of such books as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality, and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. He backs up this “antiobjectivist” argument with considerations of two kinds. Some of them rely on the causal interpretation of perception that was made popular in the 1910s and 1920s by Bertrand Russell’s Our Knowledge of the External World and The Analysis of Matter. For instance, Bateson writes:

When somebody steps on my toe, what I experience is, not his stepping on my toe, but my image of his stepping on my toe reconstructed from neural reports reaching my brain somewhat after his foot has landed on mine…. To that extent, objects are my creation, and my experience of them is subjective, not objective…. Our civilization is deeply based on this illusion [of perceptual objectivity].

Oddly enough, this dichotomy of “internal images” as against “external events” is a piece of undigested Cartesian doctrine which Russell himself inherited from T. H. Huxley and J. S. Mill, and which goes back directly to the seventeenth-century epistemological debate. Most of those philosophers and scientists who take evolutionary theory seriously in thinking about perception—J. T. Lettvin and J. J. Gibson are two whose names come to mind—have long since rejected that dichotomy, along with the whole causal theory of perception, in favor of a functional and adaptive interpretation of entire perceptual systems and processes; and Bateson would have been truer to his own central insights if he had followed their example.

In many ways, indeed, Bertrand Russell is the last philosopher one would have expected Bateson to choose as an ally. (C. S. Peirce would have been a happier choice.) Neither in his epistemology nor in his logic did Russell ever show much sensitivity toward the significance of evolutionary ways of thought. His logic may be different from Aristotle’s, but in its own ways it is just as ahistorical: and certainly, in its original context, his “theory of types” had no relevance to the problems of multiple description within an evolutionary world picture. As an epistemologist, also, Russell never strove to carry the debate about sensation and perception beyond Darwin: rather, he was concerned to take it back to where it was before Kant. And, in any event, his causal analysis of perception is, surely, prime illustration of just that kind of “linear causal thinking” that Bateson’s own argument justifiably attacks.

Elsewhere Bateson follows through his critique of “objectivism” to the point of concluding that

epistemology is always and inevitably personal. The point of the probe is always in the heart of the explorer. What is my answer to the question of the nature of knowing?

Yet this conclusion is opposed not merely to a physicalist and formalist epistemology and method, such as the Cartesian ideal of “rational objectivity through detachment” that he is right to reject. It is opposed also to any kind of critical procedure for science—if epistemology is “inevitably personal,” why not biology, too?—and it lands Bateson, at least in words, in the same kind of extreme romantic individualism as that of Paul Feyerabend. The difference is that, in Bateson’s case, this conclusion is arrived at only through the exaggeration of a basically sound position. For what he is most concerned to emphasize, here as elsewhere, is the nonexistence of any uniquely correct scientific point of view or mode of description: natural events and processes always lend themselves to a variety and multiplicity of descriptions, depending on one’s point of view.

But what differentiates one legitimate scientific point of view or mode of description from another is not anything personal: e.g., the fact that this is my point of view and that is yours. Rather, it is the fact that scientists are always free to approach any set of natural events and processes with a variety of legitimate purposes; and each of these alternative approaches generates, as a byproduct, its own distinct modes of description and styles of explanation, which—for methodological, not for personal reasons—are never in direct contradiction with one another.

Still, these criticisms do not affect the main course of Gregory Bateson’s argument; and the sorts of adventurous forays into the intellectual wilderness that have been his personal specialty make some exaggeration and fragmentariness in the final product almost inevitable. Like the keen-eyed scout he is, he has discovered terrain that future scientists will be exploring and settling for decades ahead, and he has brought back for our contemplation some fascinating and intriguing specimens. It is not always clear exactly what we should make of them. Some of them, no doubt, may even turn out to be fool’s gold. But his new book still gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what, in the new era of “postmodern science,” an overall vision of humanity’s place in nature will have to become.

This Issue

April 3, 1980