The six characteristics of Bateson’s “mind”

June 13, 2017

Gregory Bateson was an anthropologist, born in 1904 to William and Beatrice Bateson. He was the youngest of three brothers. William Bateson was director of the John Innes Horticultural Institution, and a proponent of Gregor Mendel’s statistical ideas about heredity. He coined the word “genetics.”

Their eldest son, John, died in the final year of WWI. The middle son, Martin, wanted to be a poet. William believed that “genius could only ever be found in art and nature,” but he wanted his sons to become scientists. His parents’ disapproval, as well as an unhappy romance, led Martin to shoot himself under the statue of Anteros, the avenger of unrequited love, in Piccadilly Circus.
Thus it fell to Gregory to fulfill parental expectations.


Gregory began studying zoology at Cambridge, but switched to anthropology. He taught for several years at Cambridge, and studied the Baining, Sulka, and Iatmul peoples in New Guinea. His classic book, Naven, is the study of an Iatmul ceremony. Bateson maintained that objectivity is an illusion and described Naven from three viewpoints: Sociological, ethological, and eidological—a “self-conscious discussion of the procedures by which the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are put together.”

In Naven, a transgressive ceremony that included cross-dressing and bawdy dominance, the male performers increase the intensity of their antics in response to the appreciation of female onlookers, who in turn become more appreciative. Bateson called this “schismogenesis.” When he encountered cybernetics a few years later,

recognized it as an example of positive feedback.



Bateson originated the now-discredited double bind theory of schizophrenia. In a double bind, the “victim” is punished for violating either of two mutually exclusive commands. Bateson also saw double bind as a source of creativity, citing dolphins that responded to flawed operant conditioning.

His daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson, said, “One year it was dolphins and another year it was alcoholics and another year it was octopuses. Sometimes he threw his notes away without writing them up. He did not realize himself until he put it together in Steps to an Ecology of Mind that he had worked on only one subject all his life.”

After Steps, a collection of academic papers, and in remission from lung cancer, Bateson described the “ecology of mind” for the lay reader in two books, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity and Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred.

Bateson’s ecology of mind divides the world into things governed by the laws of physics and those that move in response to information.

There is a “pattern which connects...the crab to the lobster, and the primrose to the orchid and all four to each other and to me. And me to you. And all six of us to the amoeba in one directions and the backward schizophrenic in another.” That pattern is mind, which he defined by six characteristics:

Mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components. This might be cells in a nervous system, different species in an ecosystem, or individuals, companies, banks, etc. in an economy. It also includes systems with controls, like thermostats, or ultimately, all life on Earth.

 The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference. Something happens in the environment, or an organism shifts its viewpoint.

Mental process requires collateral energy. Organisms need to eat. Thermostats need electrical power.
Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination. A population of prey animals needs predators to keep it from overpopulating its range. Sometimes a third species, in no direct contact with the first, will benefit the first by controlling its predator.

In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as coded versions of events that preceded them. We don’t know anything directly. For instance, light strikes an object that reflects it to our retina. This sends a signal through the optic nerve to our brain, which interprets it. We don’t actually “see” anything.

The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena. The name is not the thing named. “The map is not the territory,” Bateson said. “Thoughts can be about pigs or coconuts, but there are no pigs or coconuts in the brain.”

For Bateson, existence is a tautology, “an aggregate of linked propositions in which the validity of the links between them cannot be doubted.” At the time of his death, he was trying to explain what is sacred about the tautology in which we live.

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