Comments on Deborah Rose and Katja Neves-Graca

Mary Catherine Bateson

Institute for Intercultural Studies, New York

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When a group of socio-cultural anthropologists met during the Gregory Bateson centennial in 2004 on the UC Berkeley campus for a session that included the two papers published here, I was reminded by their vivid ethnographic detail of my father’s comments at an interdisciplinary Wenner-Gren conference on world views in 1968. He was impatient at most of the theorizing but delighted by the examples, for every ethnographic depiction is a form of story telling that expands the sense of human possibility.

Here we have two ethnographic vignettes that together illustrate the kind of aesthetic relationship with living systems that Gregory Bateson felt might reduce our destructive behaviors toward the biosphere. The fundamental issue for him was the recognition of pattern similarity or congruity between all living systems – the pattern which connects — leading to empathy or compassion, combined with a sense of the limits of knowledge.

Katja Neves-Graca offers an example that brings this concept most accessibly to Western readers: recognition and empathy between a human being, Daniel, and a large mammal, a whale. This evokes the range of symbiotic relationships between humans and the animals they domesticate and hunt, often with reference, as well as the ease with which children identify with the animals in story books. For Bateson, however, the issue of recognition and empathy between systems includes not only single organisms but also social and ecological systems consisting of many different organisms, which is the theme of Deborah Rose’s example. Her description of Aboriginal cosmology is closer to home for Australian readers, but more challenging to a Western mind set: the myths and ceremonies associated with the Dreaming propose an identification between human kinship groups and the multiple species and forces of the ecosystem they inhabit and rituals of shared responsibility for the well being of the biosphere.

We learn from examples. It is important to remember how often human beings have denied recognition and compassion even to our own species, how the struggle for mutual respect is not yet over. Yet it is urgent today for our species to learn an identification with the larger systems of which we are a part and within which we must act mindfully. Rose puts it more strongly, reminding me of Bateson’s definition of love as a recognition not only of the beloved but of the larger system of which lover and beloved are the parts (M. C. Bateson: 1972, 280). For Rose, desire is a part of all life and there is an erotic exchange in the dance, literal and metaphorical, between living systems.


Bateson, Mary Catherine, 1972, Our Own Metaphor: A Personal Account of a Conference on Conscious Purpose and Human Adaptation. New York : Knopf.

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