Gregory Bateson

Véronique Servais
Table of contents

Gregory Bateson was born in Grantchester, England, on May 9, 1904. He was the son of William Bateson, a prominent natural scientist who, with his Dutch colleague de Vries, rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s work. William Bateson forged the word ‘genetics’, and named his son Gregory in honor of the Austrian monk. First trained in biology at Cambridge, Gregory Bateson was all his life interested in the problems of pattern and order in the natural world. Those questions were to him the major challenge of science. He never held any academic tenure, but left an impressive amount of work. From his father, Bateson inherited his fundamental attitude towards science: “[my father] had always a hankering after the problems of pattern and symmetry, and it was this hankering and the mysticism that inspired it that I picked up and which, for better or worse, I called ‘science’. I picked up a vague mystical feeling that we must look for the same sort of processes in all fields of natural phenomena” (Bateson, 1941: 74). But at that time biology was confined within the Darwinian orthodoxy; it was certainly not open to studies on patterns and order, so Bateson turned to anthropology: “But even though today I know that all immanent biological formalisms are, in some sort, ideas, Darwinian theory prevented me from even the beginnings of such a heresy. (Had I seen this clearly, I would never have left zoology for anthropology)” (1978: 194). In 1925 he left England for a Baining tribe in the Sepik river valley, in New Guinea, with the project of studying the “feeling of culture”, but he was soon appalled by the paucity of conceptual tools in anthropology. From 1928 to 1930 he did fieldwork among the Iatmul, again in the Sepik River valley. There he met Margaret Mead (who was later to become his wife), and her husband Reo Fortune, who came to visit him in the field. On the basis of his New Guinea work Bateson wrote Naven, a book “about the nature of explanation”, which fell flat in the anthropological field when first published in 1936. An unusual piece of ethnography, Naven is an illustration of Gregory Bateson’s belief in the unity of the living world. His method (the description of a unique ceremony, the ‘naven’) is similar to the specimen descriptive method used in the natural sciences, and the conceptual tools he coined to describe the social organization of the Iatmul were inspired by the processes of segmentation of animals observed in zoology (1941: 74). Actually, one can find in Naven, although muddled, most of the motifs that will later become central to Bateson’s thinking. But the most original concept of Naven is unquestionably the schismogenesis. Schismogenesis “is a process of interaction whereby directional change occurs in a learning system” (1978: 196). With the concept of schismogenesis Bateson came close to cybernetics and its positive feedback loops; it allowed him to understand that “Competition, spectatorship, domination, and the like, were primarily words for potentially progressive patterns in relationship – not unipolar psychological words for ‘roles’” (1978: 197). Such a statement illustrates Bateson’s position about behavior: that it ought to be explained not by individual psychology, but by the formal description of the relationships, of which the individual behavior is only a part – the priority of the relationships over the relata. With the concept of schismogenesis, Bateson didn’t know that he had identified a process typical of living processes. As he will state many times later: “Billiard balls do not respond to each other’s responses, which is the essential component of schismogenesis, armaments races, the creation of tyrants and willing slaves, performers and spectators, and so on” (1978: 196) and, we should say, of the evolution of species.

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Bateson, G.
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