Gregory Bateson (24k giff)

Gregory Bateson (1904 - 1980) was a brilliant and unusually eloquent scientist and biological philosopher with a poetical turn of phrase. 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, followed by Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity and finally Angels' Fear, co-authored with his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson.

Gregory Bateson 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.


By Michael O'Callaghan.

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 (stability) within a given environment. This was Gregory Bateson's field. In his view,

"There is latent in Cybernetics the means of achieving a new and perhaps more human outlook, a means of changing our philosophy of control, and a means of seeing our own follies in wider perspective".

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 for individuals, social groups, organisations, corporations and governments which - for whatever reason - would like to change the behaviour of others. As Bateson said:

"The myth of power, is of course, a very powerful myth; and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it... But it is still epistemological lunacy and leads inevitably to all sorts of disaster... If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also come to see the world in terms of God versus man; élite versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation and man versus environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at the world can endure...

The whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in. If we continue to operate on the premises that were fashionable during the Pre-Cybernetic era, and which were especially underlined during the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to validate the Darwinian unit of survival, we may have twenty or thirty years before the logical reductio ad absurdum  of our old positions destroys us. Nobody knows how long we have, under the present system, before some disaster strikes us, more serious than the destruction of any group of nations. The most important task today is, perhaps, to learn to think in the new way."

Now consider the world-wide efforts and movements for peace, sustainability, health, human rights, gender equality, 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 we want to solve. This pre-Cybernetic way of thinking reinforces the perceptual splitting of Humankind into complementary antagonistic groups: the economic globalisers versus fair traders, environmentalists versus polluters, peace makers versus war mongers, 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, guaranteeing that the overall situation will continue to worsen, while time runs out.

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 2002, that's over 6 (heading for 10 or 12) billion people, each one of whom is part of the whole interconnected biosphere-humankind-culture-technology which constitutes the "system" in question, including you and me and all of our conscious and unconscious assumptions, expectations, and beliefs.

As Bateson said:

"To want control is the pathology! Not that the person can get control, because of course you never do... Man is only a part of larger systems, and the part can never control the whole...

So what to do if you want to change the world? Start with a systemic perspective:

The problem of how to transmit our ecological reasoning to those whom we wish to influence in what seems to us to be an ecologically good direction is (thus) itself an ecological problem".

Carl Jung made the same observation in psychological terms:

"To know where the other person makes a mistake is of little value. It only becomes interesting when you know where you make the mistake, for then you can do something about it. What we can improve in others is of doubtful utility as a rule, if, indeed, it has any effect at all."

The US government's so-called "war on terror" is perhaps the most outstanding example of a total lack of Cybernetic wisdom. Rather than examine and change its brutal foreign policy which, as Noam Chomsky so exhaustively documented, has repeatedly attempted to control other nations – and nourished the resentment and Islamic fundamentalism which apparently resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center – the US-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq are certain to produce precisely the opposite of the results intended, increasing the support for terrorism whilst simulataneously degrading the democratic principles of the USA itself and of the United Nations system so painstakingly built up for the sake of peace.

Cybernetics today is still 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 masterful work, 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 taoist insight from China comes to us through the ideogram for "crisis", which as is well known, is a combination of the symbols 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, to be the change.

The challenge is to be more mindful of some of the hidden effects of our own perceptions, words, 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.
At a much higher gestalt level, learning is called evolution".


Global Vision Homepage

Global Strategy : NGO Position Paper for the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in 1994.

Sustainability: Positioning the Concept as a Global Goal
NGO Position Paper for the conference on Environment and Society: Education and Public Awareness for Sustainability, organised by UNESCO and the Government of Greece at Thessaloniki in December 1997.

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


The Institute for Intercultural Studies. Founded by Gregory Bateson's first wife, the anthropologist Margaret Mead, the Institute web site features a large section on Gregory Bateson including a detailed bibliography of his papers, related resources, and news of events surrounding his Centennial in 2004.

How can we trust each other? Changing the Terms for Public Trust of People, Corporations and the State. Fifth International Workshop of Foundation 2020, Brioni Islands, Croatia, May 20-23 2004. Celebrating the Centennial of Gregory Bateson (1904 -2004).

Gregory Bateson

Ecology of Mind

Sites related to ecology of mind

Autpoiesis & Enaction: Guide to Internet Resources

The Observer

Social Organizations as living systems

Ernest von Glasersfeld

George Kelly

Humberto Maturana


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.

Capra, Fritjof. The Hidden Connections : A Science for Sustainable Living. HarperCollins, 2002. ISBN 000 257 047 5.

Henderson, Hazel. Beyond Globalisation: Shaping a Sustainable Global Economy. Commissioned by the New Economics Foundation. Kumarian Press, West Hartford, Connecticut, USA, 1999. ISBN 1-56549-107-6.

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.

Prigogine, Ilya; and Stengers, Isabelle: with a foreword by Alvin Toffler. Order Out of Chaos : Man's New Dialogue with Nature Heinemann, London, 1984.

Schwartz, Peter and Ogilvy, Jay. The Emergent Paradigm Center for the Study of Social Policy, SRI International, Menlo Park, 1979.

Tsu, Lao. Tao Te Ching6th. century B.C.E.; translated from the Mandarin by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, Wildwood House Ltd., London, 1972.

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.

Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachussets, 1961 and John Wiley and Sons, New York, 1961.


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