Gregory Bateson on an ecology of ideas

"Deep Ecology" by Daniel Mirante

"Deep Ecology" by Daniel Mirante
Image credit: Visionary Revue

This identity between the unit of mind and the unit of evolutionary survival is of very great importance, not only theoretical, but also ethical.

It means, you see, that I now localize something which I am calling “Mind” immanent in the large biological system—the ecosystem. Or, if I draw the system boundaries at a different level, then mind is immanent in the total evolutionary structure. If this identity between mental and evolutionary units is broadly right, then we face a number of shifts in our thinking.

First, let us consider ecology. Ecology has currently two faces to it: the face which is called bioenergetics—the economics of energy and materials within a coral reef, a redwood forest, or a city—and, second, an economics of information, of entropy, negentropy, etc. These two do not fit together very well precisely because the units are differently bounded in the two sorts of ecology. In bioenergetics it is natural and appropriate to think of units bounded at the cell membrane, or at the skin; of or units composed of sets of conspecific individuals. These boundaries are then the frontiers at which measurements can be made to determine the additive-subtractive budget of energy for the given unit. In contrast, informational or entropic ecology deals with the budgeting of pathways and of probability. The resulting budgets are fractionating (not subtractive). The boundaries must enclose, not cut, the relevant pathways.

Moreover, the very meaning of “survival” becomes different when we stop talking about the survival of something bounded by the skin and start to think of the survival of the system of ideas in circuit. The contents of the skin are randomized at death and the pathways within the skin are randomized. But the ideas, under further transformation, my go on out in the world in books or works of art. Socrates as a bioenergetic individual is dead. But much of him still lives as a component in the contemporary ecology of ideas.[5]

It is also clear that theology becomes changed and perhaps renewed. The Mediterranean religions for 5000 years have swung to and fro between immanence and transcendance. In Babylon the gods were transcendent on the tops of hills; in Egypt, there was god immanent in Pharaoh; and Christianity is a complex combination of these two beliefs.

The cybernetic epistemology which I have offered you would suggest a new approach. The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by “God,” but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social systems and planetary ecology.

Freudian psychology expanded the concept of mind inwards to include the whole communication system within the body—the autonomic, the habitual, and the vast range of unconscious process. What I am saying expands mind outwards. And both of these changes reduce the scope of the conscious self. A certain humility becomes appropriate, tempered by the dignity or joy of being part of something much bigger. A part—if you will—of God.
Gregory Bateson in Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution and epistemology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 466. First published (San Francisco, California: Chandler, 1972).

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"This identity between the unit of mind and the unit of evolutionary survival"


[5] For the phrase “ecology of ideas,” I am indebted to Sir Geoffrey Vickers‘ essay “The Ecology of Ideas” in Value Systems and Social Process, Basic Books, 1968. For a more formal discussion of the survival of ideas, see Gordon Pasks‘ remarks in Wenner-Gren Conference on “Effects of Conscious Purpose on Human Adaptation,” 1968.

Gregory Bateson Posted on behalf of Gregory Bateson on Monday, April 26th, 2010 under Quotations.

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