Gregory Bateson


British Ethnologist, Biologist, Systems Researcher, Anthropologist, Social Scientist, Linguist, Semiotician and Cyberneticist

Author Quotes

In order to proceed with abstraction, the organism must be exposed to a sufficient number of events which contain the same factors. Only then is a person equipped to cope with the most frequent happenings that he may encounter.

Of all these examples, the simplest but the most profound is the fact that it takes at least two somethings to create a difference.

The meaning of your communication is the response you get.

What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously, our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don’t want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it.

In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents, but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA.

Official education was telling people almost nothing of the nature of all those things on the seashores, and in the redwood forests, in the deserts and in the plains.

The messages cease to be messages when nobody can read them. Without a Rosetta stone, we would know nothing of all that was written in Egyptian hieroglyphs. They would be only elegant ornaments on papyrus or rock. To be meaningful - even to be recognized as pattern - every regularity must meet with complementary regularities, perhaps skills, and these skills are as evanescent as the patterns themselves. They, too, are written on sand or the surface of waters.

What we mean by information — the elementary unit of information — is a difference which makes a difference, and it is able to make a difference because the neural pathways along which it travels and is continually transformed are themselves provided with energy. The pathways are ready to be triggered. We may even say that the question is already implicit in them.

Instead of looking at the substance of it, looking at the parts and saying: “What made this part, what made that part? And where did the design plan come from that makes those parts work together?”, one sees in the pattern of their similarities and differences a whole separate kind of patterning process, and I think that was characteristic of his way of looking through the surface to some deeper dimension.

One of the interesting things that happen if you look at your hand and you consider it – not as a number of bananas on the end of some sort of flexible stick but as a nest of relations – is that you’ll find that the object looks much prettier than you thought it looked. Now this means that with a correction of our epistemology, you might find the world was greatly more beautiful than you thought it was.

The necessary ingredients for a double bind situation, as we see it, are: 1. Two or more persons. 2. Repeated experience. 3. A primary negative injunction. This may have either of two forms: (a) "Do not do so and so, or I will punish you", or (b) "If you do not do so and so, I will punish you". Here we select a context of learning based on avoidance of punishment rather than a context of reward seeking. 4. A secondary injunction con?icting with the ?rst at a more abstract level, and like the ?rst enforced by punishments or signals which threaten survival... Verbalization of the secondary injunction may, there-fore, include a wide variety of forms; for example, "Do not see this as punishment"; "Do not see me as the punishing agent"; "Do not submit to my prohibitions"; and so on. 5. A tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping from the ?eld.

Whatever the ups and downs of detail within our limited experience, the larger whole is primarily beautiful.

A major difficulty is that the answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx is partly a product of the answers that we already have given to the riddle in its various forms.

It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line of the subspecies or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its “progress” ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself. And we may very easily see this process carried to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum in the next twenty years. The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line, or the society. The old unit has already been partly corrected by the population geneticists. They have insisted that the evolutionary unit is, in fact, not homogeneous. A wild population of any species consists always of individuals whose genetic constitution varies widely. In other words, potentiality and readiness for change is already built in to the survival unit. The heterogeneity of the wild population is already one half of that trial-and-error system which is necessary for dealing with the environment. The artificially homogenized populations of man’s domestic animals and plants are scarcely fit for survival. And today a further correction of the unit is necessary. The flexible environment must also be included along with the flexible organism because, as I have already said, the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.

Our initial sensory data are always "first derivatives," statements about differences which exist among external objects or statements about changes which occur either in them or in our relationship to them. Objects and circumstances which remain absolutely constant relative to the observer, unchanged either by his own movement or by external events, are in general difficult and perhaps always impossible to perceive. What we perceive easily is difference and change — and difference is a relationship.

The pretended physical philosophy of modern days strips Man of all his moral attributes, or holds them of no account in the estimate of his origin and place in the created world.

Whenever we pride ourselves upon finding a newer, stricter way of thought or exposition; whenever we start insisting too hard upon "operationalism" or symbolic logic or any other of these very essential systems of tramlines, we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts. And equally, of course, whenever we rebel against the sterile rigidity of formal thought and exposition and let our ideas run wild, we likewise lose. As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a combination of loose and strict thinking, and this combination is the most precious tool of science.

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

Interesting phenomena occur when two or more rhythmic patterns are combined, and these phenomena illustrate very aptly the enrichment of information that occurs when one description is combined with another.

It is impossible, in principle, to explain any pattern by invoking a single quantity.

Information is the difference which makes a difference.

Language commonly stresses only one side of any interaction. Double description is better than one.

We do not know enough about how the present will lead into the future.

Science, like art, religion, commerce, warfare, and even sleep, is based on presuppositions.

Number is different from quantity... Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next.

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British Ethnologist, Biologist, Systems Researcher, Anthropologist, Social Scientist, Linguist, Semiotician and Cyberneticist