Gregory Bateson (1904 - 80) was a brilliant and unusually eloquent scientist with a poetical turn of phrase.
He was a biological philosopher. Born in England and educated at Cambridge, he carried out early anthropological work on pattern and communication in New Guinea and Bali. He then did research in psychiatry, schizophrenia, and dolphins. He played a major role in the early formulation of Cybernetics, and helped introduce Systems Theory and Communications Theory into the work of social and natural scientists.
His influence is most strongly felt in the fields of education, family therapy and ecology. He was married to the anthropologist Margaret Mead for many years; sat on the Board of Regents at the University of California; and was Scholar-in-Residence at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur.
Bateson rose to international prominence through his book Steps to an Ecology of Mind which was followed by Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity and Angels' Fear. He may yet be recognised as the single most important thinker of the twentieth century. The Global Vision Project is much inspired by him.
NOTE: The text which follows is adapted from the Introduction to the Global Vision Planning Manual. If you came to this page from a link there, you can avoid repetition by going back now.
A few words about Bateson's field - Cybernetics - are in order here.
The word Cybernetics comes from the Greek for helmsman - one who steers a ship. Cybernetics is defined as the science of communication and control. It maps the pathways of information by which systems may either be regulated from outside, or regulate themselves from within. The science thus has two main branches: the first one deals with the control of machines, and led to the development of things like anti-aircraft guns, spacecraft navigation systems, and computers. This branch does not concern us here.
The second branch of cybernetics deals with the more complex control processes through which self-organising biological and social systems regulate themselves and maintain homeostasis within a given environment. This was Gregory Bateson's field. In his view,
Observing that the Earth's biosphere (including Humankind) is a self-organising system, Bateson remarked that "no part of (such a) cybernetic system can have unilateral control over the whole or any other part." This Cybernetic law holds true not just for human attempts to control nature, but also to individuals and social groups who - for whatever reason - would like to change the behaviour of others. As Bateson said:
Now consider the world-wide movements for peace, sustainability, health, human rights, social justice, etc., from this perspective. Insofar as our approach is limited to attempts to control the symptoms of our global dis-ease, all we are really doing is trying to do modify the behaviour of those whom we may perceive to be responsible for the various problems want to solve. This pre-Cybernetic way of thinking reinforces the perceptual splitting of Humankind into complementary antagonistic groups: the ecologists versus the polluters, pacifists versus the arms industry, fair traders versus "free" traders, human rights activists versus fascists, progressives versus conservatives, political party A versus political party B, religious fundamentalists versus their enemies, terrorists of the left versus terrorists of the right ,"us" against "the system," and vice-versa! Enormous amounts of energy, money and time - intended to make things better - are wasted by both sides in a mutual cancelling-out process of complementary antagonism, such that the overall situation actually gets worse.
But the global problems we face are not really separate from each other, nor from the whole of Humankind which needs to resolve them before it is too late. As of 1998, that's six billion people, each one of whom is part of the whole interconnected biosphere-Humankind-culture- technology which constitutes the "system" in question, and that includes you and me and all of our unconscious assumptions, expectations, and beliefs as well.
As Bateson said:
Carl Jung made the same observation in psychological terms:
Cybernetics today is still seen as a minor discipline, rarely taught in universities, and wrongly presumed even by the educated public to be some rarefied pursuit of interest only to esoteric epistemologists. In China however, in the 6th century BCE, the poet and philosopher Lao Tsu recognised the self-organising principle immanent in nature, which he called the Tao. Eloquently described in his poem, the Tao Te Ching this essentially Cybernetic idea became the General Systems Theory of Chinese culture. Through the mythopoeic vision of the Tao's self-organising function, Cybernetic principles were put into practice - in government, medicine, agriculture and religion - and influenced the culture of that country for thousands of years thereafter. Another insight from China comes to us in the ideogram for "crisis", which as is well known, is a combination of the signs for "danger" and "opportunity".
Bateson's philosophy proposes a way of describing the global crisis - and the manner in which it came about - in a way that reveals opportunities for non-adversarial actions which could prove more effective in healing the underlying source of the problem than the many efforts at controlling the symptoms currently underway.
This optimistic-sounding premise is based on a simple model of the self-organising pattern-recognition process immanent in every living system, including the unconscious part of those human beings whose behaviour other groups want to change, which is presented in the Global Vision Planning Manual on this web site. This model permits a Cybernetic description of societal evolution which leads to a realisation which may seem naïve until one understands the reason for it: namely, that individual common sense is now the largest untapped resource on the planet! The real naïveté, however, is to imagine that our existing adversarial modes of political action are going to be able to solve our crisis for us. Rather than attempting to control the symptoms of the world problematique in a piecemeal and adversarial way, it will be far more effective, less costly, and more fun to empower people to see for themselves what they can do to make a difference.
The challenge is to be more mindful of some of the hidden effects of our own perceptions and actions as they travel around the global synergetic geometry of communication circuits within the larger system of which we are all a part. Bateson expressed the hope that by becoming more conscious of such connectivity, new information can emerge, and the larger system will, in fact, change subtly. As he put it:
"There is something called learning at a rather small level of organisation.
RELATED PAGES ON THIS WEBSITE
Global Vision Homepage
Global Strategy : NGO Position Paper for the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD)
The Global Vision Planning Manual : Cognitive Process in Self-Organising Systems
When the Dream Becomes Real : Visions of Apocalypse in Mythology, Madness and the Future
Mental Breakdown as Healing Process: an Interview with Jungian psychiatrist John Weir Perry
The Science & the Sacred programme: On Fundamentalism
OTHER RELATED WEBSITES
Ecology of Mind
Sites related to ecology
Autpoiesis & Enaction: Guide to Internet Resources
Social Organizations as living systems
Ernest von Glasersfeld
Bateson, Gregory . Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Ballantine Books, New York, 1972. Reprinted with a foreword by Mary Catherine Bateson, University of Chicago Press, 2000: ISBN 0-226-03905-6.
Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature : A Necessary Unity. Ballantine Books, New York, 1979.
Bateson, Gregory & Mary Catherine. Angels Fear. Macmillan, New York, 1987.
Bateson, Gregory & Ruesch, Jurgen, M.D. Communication, The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. W.W. Norton, New York, 1951.
Jantsch, Erich. The Self-Organizing Universe : Scientific and Human Implications of the Emerging Paradigm of Evolution. Pergamon, New York, 1980. (Re issued by Pergamon Press 1980, ISBN 0080243126.)
Land, George T. Grow or Die : The Unifying Principle of Transformation. Delacorte presss, 1974, ISBN 0192860305.
Maturana, Humberto R., Varela, Francisco J.; and Paolucci, Robert (translator).The Tree of Knowledge : The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Shambala Publications, 1992, ISBN 0877736421.
Maturana, Humberto R., and Varela, Francisco J. Autopoiesis and Cognition. D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1980. ISBN 9027710163.
Varela, Francisco J.; Thompson, Evan; and Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind : Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Reprint Edition, MIT PRess, Cambridge, 1993. ISBN 0262720213.
Varela, Francisco J. Principles of Biological Autonomy. Appleton & Lange, 1979, ISBN 0135009502.
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