Mind and Nature: Gregory Bateson

The rise of modern genetics banished from evolutionary thinking the contributions of such figures as Samuel Butler, William Bateson and Teilhard de Chardin. Later in the 20th century Gregory Bateson, William’s son, revived them. William Bateson: “We commonly think of animals and plants as matter, but they are really systems through which matter is constantly passing”; Gregory recalls that his father was “always trying to catch that component of nature which we might as well call mind.” Butler’s thinking I review here.

In the course of careers in several different fields Gregory Bateson came to inhabit these ways of thinking about mind and nature and make them his own. In 1978, at the age of 75, in “Mind and Nature” he tried to communicate them. But he appears to have forgotten how to explain himself in terms the rest of us can understand. The result is an almost impenetrably tangled muddle. Over the half-lifetime since it was written I've tackled this book a few times, each time admitting defeat. But on re-reading it once again I find that I had, after all, absorbed much of his way of thinking, and figured out which parts to ignore. I describe it below as I see it now.

Bateson yearned to introduce us to a natural order profoundly different from the physical order we’re all familiar with. That physical order is ordinary physical stuff as science describes it, in terms of matter and physical processes, deterministic and predictable. His natural order is about living things in their non-physical aspect. 

He gives that aspect the form of what he calls "patterns of connection." These patterns involve matter, they are patterns in matter, but you can replace the matter they're made of without altering them. Remember, the molecules we're made of are said to get replaced every few months or years so we come to consist of almost entirely new matter, yet to us we remain the same. Apply that to all of nature, seeing it as patterns of connection that can maintain themselves indefinitely without loss, that can even develop new levels of complexity in complex hierarchies, those in levels above connecting the stacks below, and you get a glimpse of Bateson's world. For him, this is not a metaphor. Nature does consist of matter but to understand it you must appreciate how it also consists of patterns of connection.

I will try to illustrate, starting with a physical example. Think of a hurricane as a huge rotating air mass. Hot moist air sucked off the surface of the water below contributes to the rising spinning pattern, then exits as clouds at higher altitudes. As this pattern travels over the ocean it ever-more-powerfully draws into itself more and more warm moist air, reinforcing the pattern. The air and water it's made of keep changing, passing through it, but the pattern persists and intensifies. Once it reaches land, however, and its supply of moist air is cut off, the pattern slowly subsides. It is not part of a system of patterns that can maintain it. But suppose many such hurricanes survived, and participated in a pattern able to draw to them warm moist air from the ocean, they might form a flourishing community of hurricanes over land. That could mark the establishment of a small stack of patterns that could affect the weather of an entire continent. 

Now instead of a hurricane imagine a cat running toward you. Like the hurricane it is a physical engine. It reaches your side and lies down. You see its chest heaving. You recognize that the muscle-engine aspect of the cat is maintained by a couple of air pumps and a blood circulation system inside it, which are maintained in turn by a digestive system, which is serviced by kidneys and a liver, and all these are supported by an endless linked network of supporting systems at the tissue and cell level, as well as in the environment that provide the cat with fuel and shelter, and so on, in widening circles of patterns of connection. Now see those patterns of connection forming vast spreading towers of stacks of such system making up a complex pattern that connects all living creatures. That's the natural order, those are the terms you have to think in to "understand" how life works.

Notice that Bateson titled the book, “Mind and Nature.” Why “mind”? Bateson had come to recognize in mind patterns of connection similar to those he had discerned in evolved nature. For him, mind and nature flesh out the ancient Stoic relationship of microcosm and macrocosm: “If you want to understand mental process, look at biological evolution and conversely if you want to understand biological evolution, go look at mental process.” In fact, for him, every pattern of connection was associated with mind, mind was an integral part of the natural order. Not conscious mind--for that he had little respect, too linear in operation, too subject to distortion by culture--unconscious, natural mind, such as he urged us to cultivate.

So far I’m carried along, pleased to see this alternative tradition of thinking about evolution well represented. But eventually a nagging doubt must be acknowledged—are these patterns of connection real, or are they merely a heuristic device to make us feel smarter? No doubt Bateson thought they were real--he describes them in general terms, as interlinked feedback systems, alternations of form and process, towering in great hierarchies, upper levels taking over when lower levels come under stress, as if he can picture them. But apart from some irrelevant physical analogues such as 3D vision and moiree patterns he comes up with no examples. There is very little mention in his book of life in the wild, no mentions of particular species or interactions between species. I’m afraid this is all no more than, as I feared, heuristics. 

Perhaps for this reason the book made little impression in its day. But that’s a pity. Bateson was just too early. Computers have since then become extremely efficient at detecting patterns of connection. Think of Amazon, Google and Netflix being able to predict, from all their sales data and your previous purchases, what cluster of items you’re likely to want next. Think of IBM’s Watson being able to beat human experts at Jeopardy. Think of a computer given a million pictures with, and a million pictures without, a human face; it may well come up with a subroutine distinguishing between them, that programmers can label “face.” When they can say, search for “face,” the computer may well find faces in photos better than humans can. Through this kind of programming computers have already found new ways to distinguish cancer cells from non-cancerous cells. Bateson’s patterns of connection are becoming a staple of modern digital industries. If you lack the talent yourself, that programming is now an online service you can purchase in the cloud.

Once a computer identifies patterns of connection in data for us, we can visualize them in the form of charts and diagrams. I remember data from a study of obesity being expressed in maps (patterns of connection) showing onset of cases of obesity coinciding closely with who obese people spoke with by phone. Passing on brand names of foods or drugs, perhaps? Another example—Space Shuttle data graphed in terms of mishaps against temperature-at-time-of-launch showed Challenger should not have been cleared to launch that chilly morning. A pity NASA’s computers hadn’t been instructed to identify and present for inspection such patterns earlier.

How long can it be before modern computing power is applied to search for patterns of connection in the fossil record, in natural environments, in neuroscience, and Bateson will be vindicated?

But this is not, I believe what Bateson wanted. He wanted us to learn how, through appreciation of the natural order, we could gain in natural grace and wisdom about ourselves. Unfortunately he was grossly inept at communicating it. At the end of the book is included an impassioned appeal Bateson made to a Californian Committee on Education Policy that education be brought more in line with his insights. It is haughty and incoherent. Much of it reads as if someone tossed his book into a shredder and pasted up shreds of it at random. Seeing how completely he misjudged his audience and mangled that message may help us make our way through his book. I recommend reading chapter seven first, then chapter five. That’s all. The rest, which is intended to be instructional, I found only maddening and confusing.

To me, sadly, Bateson’s thinking is blemished by a profound contradiction I find in it. The order of nature that he sees as wholes consisting of interlinked patterns he also says is regulated and built by stochastic processes, but these can work only on collections of unconnected particles, the opposite of his patterns of connection. How could minds, associated with patterns of connection, evolve through selection of such disconnected “atoms”? And how can a study of these patterns and minds be undertaken by any faculty other than consciousness, that he advises us to suppress?  These inconsistencies lead me to question the rest of Bateson’s legacy.