Mind and Nature

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Dissidents of various persuasions, whether religious, political or educational, habitually decry the status of university teaching. Fundamentalists detest the theory of evolution, political leftists despise capitalism while right-wingers deride socialism, and pedagogical traditionalists denounce the avant-garde while their liberal counterparts denigrate widespread stagnation. It is with this spirit that Gregory Bateson submits this careful polemic.

After surgery in 1978 when he was “warned that time might be short,” Bateson stepped up his efforts to complete Mind and Nature, a book summing up his epistemology for a general audience. The British-born anthropologist, who did pioneering work in cybernetics and information theory, is known best for writing Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis in 1942 with his former wife, Margaret Mead, and Steps to an Ecology of Mind thirty years later. The latter is a more erudite treatment of the subject matter in Mind and Nature. Bateson has taught at Harvard University, the University of Hawaii, and at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Since 1976 he has been a member of the University of California Board of Regents.

In this treatment, Bateson attempts to counter two types of epistemology. His background in the biological sciences, with its Darwinian underpinning and corresponding evidence, forecloses the option of any nonevolutionary philosophy, and his anthropological and biological research narrows the type of evolutionary theory that he will accept. It is by means of his concept of evolution that he attempts “to construct a picture of how the world is joined together in its mental aspects.” More specifically, Bateson proposes to demonstrate that thinking is governed by the same process that controls biological evolution: symbiosis, or natural selection.

As if Bateson was discouraged with the success of this epistemological understanding in turning the course of university pedagogy when he presented it in Steps to an Ecology of Mind some eight years ago, he has re-presented it in this text, only now he directs his message toward the public as if to affront the universities from the outside. University teaching, according to Bateson, is founded upon a radically flawed epistemology, the Cartesian dualism of mind and matter. Without realizing it, universities have maintained an obsolete status quo by trying to accommodate the needs of the social environment without first checking to see whether the basic principles of the diversified fields of inquiry and technology cohere. University teaching has become grossly unbalanced because the centers of higher learning and research have neglected the fact that synchrony between rigor and imagination disengages as soon as creative thinking races forward on a faulty epistemological footing. Instead of relaying solid unified information, universities require students to learn fragments. No longer citadels marked by a balance of unity and diversity, universities have become glorified technical institutes.

Bateson’s corrective to this academic plight is his thesis that thought, like biological evolution, is a stochastic process. The understanding of stochastic process argued for here is not to be confused with that held by Chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829), a French naturalist who maintained that the way in which an organism adapts to its environment affects the genetic makeup of its offspring. Instead, genetic change and, according to Bateson, learning, evolve because both are comprised of a random series of events and a non-random cluster of factors which “selects” particular random components for survival. Negative entropy, claims Bateson, insures continuity; entropy permits change. For change to occur, the new must cohere with an organism’s internal demands while adapting to the external requirements of the environment.

An apt illustration of the two conflicting understandings of stochastic process may be found in the classic example of the giraffe. According to Lamarck, giraffes’ necks had to become elongated because the leaves of palm trees are so high; in other words, the giraffes’ environment dictated the genetic change. Such a view seems absurd to Bateson, who would maintain that because only long-necked giraffes were able to eat, they were the only ones that were able to survive and reproduce. In this case, the environment was the primary stable (non-random) factor, and length of necks was the random: the stable factor permitted certain random characteristics to continue.

In the same way, social interaction is a product of the natural selection of patterns of interaction. Bateson says that “transference” characterizes human interaction, because yesterday’s pattern of interaction between people shapes the way that they respond to one another today. In principle, this shaping is a transference from past learning.

Such interpersonal...

(The entire section is 2034 words.)