Gregory Bateson: Prophet in spite of himself

August 17, 2017

You have to wonder why anthropologist Gregory Bateson wrote his last two books. Only when he had collected his academic papers for general readership did he realize what he’d spent his life investigating: The “pattern which connects.”

Bateson divided the world between that which thinks (including one-celled creatures, living bodies, governments, and ecosystems) versus things like rocks and stars. This opens everything up to science—love, consciousness, God.

In Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bateson outlined his criteria for “mind,” and explored perception and evolutionary theory. In Angels Fear, completed by his daughter Mary Catherine, he viewed the same ideas through a religious lens to develop a concept of  “the sacred” that is neither “supernatural nor mechanical.”

Bateson had reasons for leaving well enough alone. He would have guffawed at the idea of himself as a prophet. In a “metalogue” in Angels Fear, Mary Catherine has him say, “You cannot construct something and designate it as sacred.” She reminds his ghost that he rejected designing an ecological religion because “the idea of insider and outsider, the damned and the saved, is too much a part of the notion of religion for it to be usable.”



Conscious purpose was original sin for Bateson. It “might be a fatal characteristic of the human species leading human beings to pursue narrowly conceived purposes without an understanding of their destructive effects.”


Adam and Eve “threw God out of the garden” by short-circuiting ecology’s feedback to get what they wanted. “I do not believe that the original purpose of the rain dance was to make it rain. I suspect that that is a degenerate understanding of a much more profound religious need: to affirm membership in...the eternal verities of life and the environment.”

Bateson was trying to articulate a moment in which the world might abandon dualism for a monism in which we may be “hubristic” about questioning anything and absolutely humble about the answers we get. Knowing that you are trying to replace the spokesman for the Enlightenment with yourself should make you scrupulous about your own “narrowly conceived purposes.”

Part of him felt that the world could work things out itself without him. Mary Catherine’s comments about his and her mother Margaret Mead’s approaches to death show this. “When she was dying, she was continually trying to find the point of leverage that could help, either in reversing the disease or in alleviating her discomfort...Gregory was routinely skeptical of the effects of medical treatment and neglectful of his body...Dying, he struggled to understand how to relax and let go.”

Bateson regretted his service during WWII, providing insights into Japanese culture for purposes of disinformation. Even for the enemy, truth had to be sacred. In spite of saying that even if he were wrong, “my part of the biosphere, needs no excuses,” he might have been skittish about misleading his readers.

Being mistaken was a real possibility. He must have been aware of criticism that his “double bind” theory of schizophrenia increased the anguish of already troubled families. The theory says that schizophrenics are trying to resolve impossible dilemmas, usually caused by their mothers. The hypothetical mother, for instance, asks her son, “Do you love me?” The son is screwed if he answers negatively, but if he says “Yes,” she says, “Why do I always have to ask you to tell me you love me?”

Bateson witnessed this dynamic while working with schizophrenics. He documents several examples in  “Epidemiology of a Schizophrenia” and “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia,” published in Steps to an Ecology of Mind. But these might have been examples of schizoaffective disorder, subclinical manifestations of what we now know as a genetic disease.

Bateson had been playing with ideas about the connections between organisms and each other and their environment for decades. He joked that there had to be a “sardonic lemming” standing off to the side, telling the pack, “I told you so.”

But Bateson also believed that “lemmings” could reverse course. “The human species...may extinguish itself any day now.” Specifically he meant nuclear war, pollution, and overconsumption, but generally he was talking about conscious purpose. “I suppose it is a mistake of sorts for [a] species to be a party to its own extinction.”

He believed that materialism makes us dismiss our connections to life, and that religion, at least American Protestantism, is materialistic. Miracles are materialistic, so our answers must come from beauty, not miracles.
He mentions symphonies and organisms as being beautiful, and the 29th Psalm, and the sea snakes that the Ancient Mariner blessed “unaware.” That leaves us needing a theory of beauty, and Bateson described the world in a way that lets us begin.


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