Gregory Bateson

The Pattern Which Connects


"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

-- Emily Dickinson

Gregory Bateson -- anthropologist, philosopher, author, photographer and filmmaker, naturalist, poet, third husband of Margaret Mead, husband of Lois Bateson, father of Mary Catherine Bateson, John Bateson and Nora Bateson -- was born on May 9, 1904 and died on July 4, 1980. Bateson, who died of complications of lung cancer at the San Francisco Zen Center, spent his last years living with his wife Lois and 12-year-old Nora at Esalen in Big Sur.

Bateson began his anthropological career as "the last notable [A.C.] Haddon student" on the Torres Straits Expedition. Bateson learned anthropology at Cambridge, but never held a Ph. D.1 He did anthropological field research in New Guinea (Naven, 1936) and Bali (with Mead, Balinese Character, 1942). He and Margaret Mead pioneered the field of visual anthropology. He later collaborated on the "double bind theory of schizophrenia," worked with dolphins in Hawaii, taught at UC Santa Cruz and Esalen, sat on the University of California's Board of Regents, wrote about cybernetics, whole systems, the logic of living and non-living things, and the processes of science (Mind and Nature, 1979, and Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1971), and -- as evidence by the many time he published in CoEvolution Quarterly (now, Whole Earth Review) -- helped to pioneer a brand new, co-evolutionary way of thinking.

He was the son of William Bateson, a natural scientist who was among those who rediscovered Mendel's work and pioneered the "new synthesis" of genetics and evolutionary biology2.

Bate*son (bãt'sæn), William. 1861-1926. British biologist who experimentally proved Mendel's theories on heredity3.

As such, Bateson grew up in an environment permeated with science. Mind and Nature is a reflection of Bateson's scientific view, an argument (or perhaps even a lecture) intended to unmuddle so much of the muddled thought he saw around him. Yet his ideas have an almost diabolic nature -- they seem to turn in on themselves sometimes, to be infinite regresses or perhaps examples (metaphors) of the very arguments he makes.

When I went to a Bateson seminar at Esalen in April, 1980, I was awed by this multilayered intellect. I had never been in the presence before of this kind of mind -- obviously, an example of a "great mind." I imagined at one point if I were to see into his head I would see the black infinity of the universe filled with stars.

It is probably this diabolical, metaphorical and recursive quality that brings some people to idolize Bateson as a kind of guru. Indeed, Bateson's theories are sometimes misapplied by seekers and self-styled mystics. Bateson knew his ideas were difficult to grasp.

"What's Bateson talking about?" he writes unselfconsciously in Mind and Nature when referring to his college students' temporary confusion when confronted with a crab -- a favorite Bateson object -- in class.

But Bateson would probably not have wanted to have been a guru for the generation. Rather, his writings have much to offer us who do science, and what they offer is surprisingly understandable, intellectually enlightening, visionary, and important. Bateson's work is ultimately about the process of doing science, the words and thoughts of one who specialized in unmuddled thinking.


The Manuscript

Gregory Bateson
Esalen, October 5, 1978

So there it is in words
And if you read between the lines
You will find nothing there
For that is the discipline I ask
Not more, not less

Not the world as it is
Nor ought to be -
Only the precision
The skeleton of truth
I do not dabble in emotion
Hint at implications
Evoke the ghosts of old forgotten creeds.

All that is for the preacher
The hypnotist, therapist and missionary
They will come after me
And use the little that I said
To bait more traps
For those who cannot bear
The lonely
of Truth4

In her introduction to Angels Fear, Mary Catherine Bateson writes, "A great many people, recognizing that Gregory was critical of certain kinds of materialism, wished him to be a spokesman for an opposite faction, a faction advocating the kind of attention they found comfortable to things excluded by atomistic materialism: God, spirits, ESP, "the ghosts of old forgotten creeds." Gregory was always in the difficult position of saying to his scientific colleagues that they were failing to attend to critically important matters, because of methodological and epistemological premises central to Western science for centuries, and then turning around and saying to his most devoted followers, when they believed they were speaking about these same critically important matters, that the way they were talking was nonsense... Gregory wanted to continue to speak to both sides of our endemic dualism..."

Yes, Bateson's thinking was "green" -- but an unmuddled sort of green.



  1. Some information on Gregory Bateson's intellectual heritage may be found in historian of science Henrika Kuklick's magnificent 1991 monograph on anthropological history, The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885-1945 (Cambridge University Press). This is one of the three books I would take on a time machine to the future of anthropology. Kuklick, a gifted writer and scholar, is Professor of the History and Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania.
  2. William Bateson published a translation of Mendel's seminal 1865 paper in Mendel's Principles of Heredity (Cambridge, 1909) and is credited with at least a portion of that translation.
  3. American Heritage College Dictionary, Third Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, page 116.
  4. Poem "The Manuscript" quoted from Gregory Bateson and Mary Catherine Bateson, (1987) Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred. NY: Bantam Books. The poem is also printed on page 12 of the January 1981 Esalen catalog.

Related Sites

This Bateson page is the work of Candice Bradley, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. This page was updated 4 October 1996 in a flash of inspiration and procrastination.