Gregory Bateson


Gregory Bateson

The man behind the systems theory

“What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you?”

Gregory Bateson

“What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all the four of them to me? And me to you?” remarked Gregory Bateson, born on the 9th of May 1904 in Grantchester, UK.

Bateson was an anthropologist but his work crossed many fields including social science, linguistics, visual anthropology and cybernetics or “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”.

Bateson moved away from traditional anthropology in the late 1940s. Embracing psychology, behavioral biology, evolution, systems theory, and working toward a theoretical synthesis that he referred as “an ecology of mind.” It begins with a series of metalogues, which take the form of conversations with his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson. Before going further into Bateson’s work it is important to understand that a metalogue is a conversation about some problematic subject. This conversation is such that not only do the participants discuss the problem but the structure of the conversation as a whole is also relevant to the same subject. Notably, the history of evolutionary theory is inevitably a metalogue between man and nature in which the creation and interaction of ideas must necessarily exemplify evolutionary process. This was developed by Gregory Bateson the anthropologist. The subjects of his research seem different. The list of topics seems even more: biological evolution, adaptation, ecology, art, arms races, social organization, communication, cultural transmission, learning, play, fantasy, films, character and personality. And more generally, the nature and study of mind, study of culture, and of a great class of integrative processes which he eventually called “mind.” Through his individualistic approach Bateson challenged people to think in new ways and his ideas continue to impact how we think in the 21st century. In the 1940s and 1950s he brought his ethnographic method to bear on schizophrenia and other psychiatric phenomena particularly disturbed communication within families. This work resulted in Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. Bateson was fond of saying that the mind is an ecological system and that introduced ideas, like, ‘introduced seeds can only take root and flourish according to the nature of the system receiving them’.

Gregory Bateson Communication the Social Matrix of Psychiatry

Bateson felt deeply that ways of understanding the phenomena of the world of communication necessarily have active moral consequences. His philosophy was based on relationships which are sustained through communication of information rather than by energy  flows. He felt that explanations that were not of the proper turn in relation to the events he was trying to describe were not only false in ways that he tried to specify but were dangerous in that they led to destructive action. In “From Versailles to Cybernetics,” Bateson argues that the history of the twentieth century can be perceived as the history of a malfunctioning relationship. In his view, the Treaty of Versailles exemplifies a whole pattern of human relationships based on betrayal and hate. He therefore claims that the treaty of Versailles and the development of cybernetics—which for him represented the possibility of improved relationships—are the only two anthropologically important events of the twentieth century.

His interest in behavioral morphology which for him involved structures of meaning and communication developed ‘The concept of schizogenesis in the 1930s, to account for certain forms of social behavior between groups. His anthropological background helped him to distinguish two models of schizogenesis: symmetrical and complementary. Symmetrical relationships are those in which the two parties are equals, competitors, such as in sports. Complementary relationships feature an unequal balance, such as dominance-submission (parent-child), As an anthropologist Bateson’s experiences with the Iatmul, a large ethnic group inhabiting some two-dozen politically autonomous villages along the middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea led him to publish a book in 1936 titled ‘Naven: A Survey of the Problems suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe drawn from Three Points of View.’

In 1964 Bateson wrote `The Logical Categories of Learning and Communication’ which was an attempt to illuminate the barriers of misunderstanding which divide the various species of behavioural scientists by an application of “Russell’s Theory of Logical Types” to the concept of “learning limits and other characteristics of the processes of knowing, thinking and deciding…” It is important to observe here that “Russell’s Theory of Logical Types” distinguishes between levels of abstraction. The notion of logical types is used by Bateson as a way of charting the classification inherent in all perceiving, thinking, learning, and communicating. Bateson had developed a theory of learning which is a combination of science and philosophy. For him epistemology is a branch of science combined with a branch of philosophy. As science, epistemology is the study of how particular organisms or aggregates of organisms know, think and decide. As philosophy, epistemology is the study of the necessary. He coined the term ‘Deutero Learning’ in the 1940s referring to the organization of learning, or learning to learn. According to Eric Bredo Bateson’s Hierarchical Theory of learning and communication approach differs from much contemporary learning theory in that it is based on a theory of communication rather than the problem solving model which underlies cognitive learning theory, thus, immediately altering the individualistic focus adopted in learning theory. Learning for Bateson has five levels:

  • Zero – l earning is anything that is not caused by trial and error after correction such as a reflex. Specific external stimulus always causes the same response. The foot swings when the knee is struck less than gently. The response is one and fixed. To recall the related behavior instincts are zero – level learning.
  • The first level of learning means change the specificity of the response by correcting the error in the selection from among the choices . One response instead of more.  Of which additional information is selected that best suits the situation. The response is selected from the possibilities of learning.
  • Second – level learning means a change in top -level learning process which is a reactive changes in the list of options from which a selection is made. Response selection process changes. It consists of responses to a set of forces. The second level of learning is based on childhood and is subconscious which is likely to remain throughout adulthood.  Due to the subconscious nature, the 2nd level of learning is difficult to change. This stage could be described as learning of learning.
  • Third – level learning means a change in the level 2 in the learning process which is reactive to change their troops among the alternatives from which a selection is made. It is transformed in response to forces in the selection process of creating forces troops. Level three learning is rare and it will change essentially human activity.  It is sometimes seen in psychotherapy, religious revival, and in cases for example enlightenment where its nature is rearranged to a considerable extent. Zen Buddhism , Eastern mysticism , and some psychiatrists estimate that these cases are completely beyond the reach of language.  This stage could be described as learning of the learning of the learning.

What is of significance in this hierarchy of learning system is the context and the interdependence between the series which is the interdependence of wholes and parts. Here I am tempted to place an analogy with the philosophy of the Gestalt psychologists assumption that the whole is more than just the sum of its parts.

Whole is more than just sum of its parts

The notion of holism

Bateson’s readers often find it difficult to grasp that his way of thinking is different from theirs. Bateson is not clearly understood because his work is not an explanation but a commission. As Wittgenstein noted, “a commission tells us what we must do.” In Bateson’s case, what we must do is reprogram ourselves, train our intelligence and imagination to work according to radical configurations.

An example of learning and survival.

Mungo and the snake duel ends always in mungo’s advantage. And this is due to the dominance of the mammalian brain developed in relation to the reptile earlier stage of development representing the brain for learning. Snake reacts with a reflex, but the mongoose learn to fake attacks through the serpent’s attack of the total model .  Overall, the model is able to eventually strike the mongoose fake attacks in the right way when it sees the anticipated signs. When the serpent is cast on the offensive the attack starts.

A similar principle is used for fencing, boxing, and so on. Forecasting, modelling, learning, and models based on the identification of activities to overcome critical elements of seconds. When the snake only responds to fake attack, the mungo is in response to the reaction.  Ready to go. The snake do not have time to react to any mungo in the actual attack because it is only reacting to the actual invasion of the anticipated attack.

Mungo is dominated by the future when the snake is only in the present moment . Mungo have two options: first, a choice of fake attack which is used to attack the snake model; and second, the attack which is based on the understanding of learning of the snake. A single variant is relative to the level of learning or more alternative is therefore potentially superior zero or a single reflex variant relative learning.

Information is the difference that makes the difference.

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