Gregory Bateson and Ecological Aesthetics: An Introduction

by Peter Harries-Jones

© all rights reserved

Gregory Bateson was one of the most original writers of the twentieth century in the field of humanities and the social sciences. His writing is synthetic, embracing several disciplines, including aesthetics, anthropology, biology, communication studies, cybernetics, ecology, family therapy, general systems studies, social psychology and zoosemiotics. Not only was he synthetic but he made lasting contributions, mostly theoretical, or as Bateson preferred to term them, “epistemological,” in all of these fields. His contribution in family therapy is best known, since he and his research group at Palo Alto , California , were originators of systemic family therapy, as an alternative to the highly individualistic therapeutic techniques of psychiatry. To Bateson and his colleagues we owe the common English expression, “double bind.”

No less important is Bateson’s concept of “ecology of mind,” which points to the communicative interconnection among all living organisms. Bateson’s “ecology of mind” is an entirely original contribution to the standard accounts, both cultural and biological of “adaptation.” The focus of his version of adaptation is embedded in the communicative interconnections between human cultures and nature and is unique in stressing the constraints and dilemmas which arise as a result of their complex feedback into one another. His views clash with the orthodoxy of Darwinism as much as they do with fundamentalist teachings of orthodox religions and creationism. In recent years his view has received additional support from biologists like Lynn Margulis who propose that evolution owes little to random genetic mutations and evolves from long-term symbioses, the pattern of symbiogenesis requiring multi-level interaction along with communication to sustain organized interactions (Margulis and Sagan, 2002). As a metaphor, ecology of mind has also acquired resonance in entirely different fields of enquiry, for example, the concept of “language ecology.” Language ecology is an approach to language which embodies non-lineal patterns of interconnection and communication at several levels. The approach has become increasingly important in language studies in recent years.

The originality of Bateson’s thought, his synthetic development of ideas and the tautness of their written expression makes for difficult reading. Bateson tended to assume that the ideas he brought forward were well known to his readers. This was by no means the case. Yet he often mentioned sources only in passing, avoiding an academic mode of referencing, a style which removed the opaqueness often found in academic texts, but at the cost of puzzlement as to his precise meaning. Bateson replied to critics that fundamental ideas were never easy to grasp and could not be absorbed in a hurried manner. He expected the readers of his articles – he mostly wrote articles – to undertake several readings. Nevertheless, he gave some thought as to how his readers might grasp the implications of thinking , writing in an experimental style that he named a “metalogue” which demonstrated in written form that which he wished to explain: the non-linearity that Bateson insisted was inherent in all communication and ecological processes. His experimental style and its boldness and success should be set against the fact that computer technology was in its infancy while, at this time, standard undergraduate courses in physics in North American universities taught non-linear phenomena only as an afterthought. His replies to readers’ enquiries were more forgiving, as were the many talks that he gave over the years. His archives record that often (but not always) he gave memorable performances in his lectures, using amusing stories to help the audience grasp non-linear context.

The topic of aesthetics was both the first subject he explored and his last. As an adolescent he took up the study of William Blake, the English artist who contested the scientific rationale of a mechanistic universe, a rationale that provided impetus to the industrial processes beginning to pervade Great Britain in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Industrial science had transformed Blake’s own profession of engraving, destroying the skills of the engraver, and in general swamping hand- made production. For Blake, the new scientific concepts were false in regard to human perception of nature – and of nature itself. Blake caricatures scientists’ claims that their scientific laws were of a “universal nature.” Blake’s objections were phrased through an artist’s abiding concern for an aesthetic vision, a vision which embraced “minute particulars.” Bateson’s last book, published posthumously (Bateson and Bateson, 1987), has a Blakean edge. Bateson sought to return to Blake’s ideas of holism and aesthetic unity through attaching ecology to a communicative order. Rather than condemning natural science outright, Bateson seeks an ally in the relatively new science of ecology while attempting to rid the new science of its mechanistic assumptions. This has proved no easy task, since the predominant concerns of ecological science, then as now, remain with the quantitative analysis of biomass and physical energy, or with thermodynamics, as in the case of global climate warming.1

As well, he had to develop an aesthetics that owed little to the prevailing notion of aesthetic appreciation in the western world. Bateson’s ecological aesthetics is participatory – very different from the rather static rules favoured by Immanuel Kant and his successors. Unlike the western vision which draws heavily on art, poetry, architecture and literature, and is oriented to individual’s taste, Bateson’s ecological aesthetics is concerned with habitat , and habitat change. Its focus lies in how people perceive change in an ever-transforming ecology. Beyond this, human perception of nature is linked to human conception of nature and thus, by implication, to human survival.

The deeper issues of human survival bring Bateson to his critique of natural science. Bateson grants that science understands feedback and non-linearity in a partial manner, and has many ways in which it can measure this phenomenon; but western science fails to understand feedback as a total phenomenon. If western science had comprehended feedback in a systemic manner, it would have understood that bit- by- bit material transformation of nature for short- term industrial and military purposes would inevitably feedback into a wide array of living processes. In the rush to support production, scientific practices have transformed ecologies of the living, making them more rigid and therefore less stable. Fragmentation of nature in industrial society has erased any sense of original unity in nature. At the end of the 20 th century, the relation of scientific enterprise to its ecological surround imitates the world of Humpty-Dumpty after his fall.

Bateson alludes to the proverb that wise men see only outlines and do not mistake the difference between forest and trees. Western science, both natural science and social science, rejects the one path that might lead it to recover a sense of holism, the attachment of aesthetics to scientific enterprise. In his posthumous publication Angels Fear (Bateson and Bateson, 1987), he suggests one possible path for renewed understanding of holism, the study of how spiritual unity was expressed in cultures throughout the world. There was no missionary intent implied in this suggestion. Nor did such investigations infer that he was proposing adoption of the spiritual practices of other cultures. Indeed, Bateson always wrote of an immanent rather than transcendental world. and was against transcendental visions of holism that derived from the wishes of a God or a spirit. He suggested that ecologists and anthropologists put on the spiritual cloak of other cultures in order to understand in a more profound way how those cultures evoked different rhythms of life and death and how their understanding of these rhythms became embodied in their spiritual practices.

In one respect Bateson is not alone. The ecologist, J. Baird Callicott, took this path in Earth’s Insights , (Callicott, 1994). Yet as his subtitle demonstrates, “a multicultural survey of ecological ethics from the Mediterranean basin to the Australian Outback,” Callicott’s concerns are with ecological ethics rather than aesthetics ; and in concentrating upon ethics, Callicott treads an academic path portrayed in much green literature. The call for a compendium on ecological aesthetics is more novel, and more arduous since it requires ethnographers to conduct fieldwork with this purpose in mind.

The articles of Deborah Rose and Katja Neves-Graça are among the first examples of such an enquiry into an ecological aesthetics inspired by Bateson. Originally, the articles were presented along with a third, by Kathy M’Closkey in a symposium in San Francisco , honouring the centennial of Bateson’s birth. The three have their own unintended unity in that Rose paper deals with the aesthetics of life, Neves-Graça deals with the aesthetics of death, and M’Closkey deals with the aesthetics of production in both indigenous (Navajo or Diné) and western commercial – industrial (“Anglo” ) contexts (M’Closkey, 2002, 2004) .2

The two articles loop back and forth between their respective themes. As Rose points out , life itself desires pattern and connection, the threads through which life gains meaning. The cultural repetition of this desire manifests itself in a myriad of ways, in an expression of distinct patterns, in an interlock of patterns and in the nesting of multiple patterns drawn from diverse cultural activities. These are finally braided into a holistic pattern, appearing somewhat like a third dimension as its projection cuts across very different forms of representation. Though we may talk of “threads” in a pattern, the metaphor is to some extent misplaced in that the “threads” of this meta-pattern, or third dimension are interactive. Australian Aboriginal culture, Rose suggests, evokes connections which tie the bearer of a call to the bearer of an answer. Yet both silence and secrets lie in the gaps of the interconnection. Likewise, interwoven patterns may shift their ground, indicating that the weave of the pattern by no means resembles the smooth, flatness of a Christian altar-cloth, rather a rotating disk that flip-flops, as in the toys that children sometimes make. Aboriginal culture dances the connections between these patterns, it flips between foreground and background, between the bearer of the call and the bearer of the answer. Rose’s beautiful account reveals how she became aware of this as she danced in a ritual celebration of life.

Neves-Graça deals with a different circumstance, the moments when life and death meet. Ritual moments of life and death are prominent in English literature. Hemingway chose war, bullfights, elephant hunting and deep sea fishing to elaborate these moments, while Herman Melville gave us Captain Ahab and his whale to ponder the juxtaposition of deliverance and destruction. These moments may be among the most memorable of our lives yet we often prefer not to think about them, and one culture can look on another group or culture’s ritual enactment of these moments with disdain and disgust. For that reason ecologists have always been ambivalent about the claim that hunters have a finer appreciation of nature that the average urban citizen. From a non-hunter perspective, it does seem bizarre that Ducks Unlimited, a United States non-governmental organization would seek special privileges in the name of conservation to preserve wetlands in Canada so that there would always be enough ducks to shoot on their annual migration to North Carolina .

Neves-Graça confronts that ambivalence with her ethnography of Daniel, the former whaler who repudiates the label of whaler-murderer. With whaling now prohibited in the Azores, Daniel has turned to eco-tourism, but his approach to the trips he organizes for sighting whales is profoundly modified by his past activity and differs markedly from other commercial ventures in the Azores . As a past whaler, like all hunters who have hunted for survival purposes, Daniel’s approach in his new role is interactive, not simply observational. The form of whaling undertaken in the Azores required whalers to become a whale in water in order to kill it, that is to say, to take all the whale’s dispositions at the moment of sighting into account. Daniel wishes to impart to his audience as much as he is able of the beauty he perceived as a youth in his deadly interaction with whales. Neves-Graça’s discussion of the interaction between human and cetacean is a strange sort of example of beauty until one realizes that, following Bateson , she is evoking a second-order phenomenon, a pattern of aesthetics derived from an interactive pattern.

Bateson went even beyond this notion of interactive pattern derived from the necessities of survival: beauty may lie in the abstractions of perception but in the longer term, beauty is also an outcome of co-evolution. One of Bateson’s most memorable phrases, “the pattern which connects,” expresses this idea. He refers here to co-evolution as an outcome of relations between species, not only in the tense of past evolution but in the present tense of “co-eval” relations. There is a sort of meta-pattern that emerges through interactive patterning and feedback in evolutionary time, which connects humans to lobsters and crabs, and that this meta-pattern differs qualitatively from that presented in a materialist explanation of adaptation. It is important to recognize that Bateson never evokes some mystical pattern of causation. His battle with Arthur Koestler was over this issue, and he would certainly have battled with Rupert Sheldrake had he encountered the latter’s notions on morphic resonance and morphogenetic fields (Sheldrake, 1981).

What Bateson was asserting was that symmetries, contrast, colour and other types of branching pattern that we see in flowers, in some way relates to our own nervous system, the interaction of the two being typical examples of his notion of “mind.” I must confess to being puzzled and failing to grasp the connection the first time I came across this particular example of coevalness of “mind.” Yet consider the very evident notion that our own human sense of form and symmetry draws our attention to flowers, and that we frequently discuss particular forms of symmetry in flowers. The same attention – absent discussion – is true of bees, yet we call this type of attention “adaptation” and represent such attention only as a material manifestation. We throw out the notion that beauty in form itself might be an integral part of that interaction, that bees have sufficient intelligence to pay attention to form and that perception of formal aspects of beauty could in any way resembles our own. Yet the average gardener knows honeybees favour the radial symmetry of daisies and clover and sunflowers, while bumble bees prefer the bilateral symmetry of orchids, peas and foxgloves, and an average gardener could reasonably conclude that they both recognize colours and symmetries, i.e. contrast and pattern which flowers employ to alert bees to their presence and significance.

Bateson did not raise this point, but flowers also have a feedback awareness of the attention they attract from bees and other insects, and as recent studies of communication patterns in plants have shown, they will alter their form in order to accommodate beneficial interactions from bees and produce semio-chemicals to dissuade destructive ones from insects. Some flowers have a feedback awareness of the attention they attract from humans, the classic case being that of the tulip. The tulip has changed its form (unaided by controlled selection) several times since the Dutch “tulipomania” of the mid 1600s in order to please human dreams and preferences (Pollan: 2001: 77ff).

If we humans trace a pattern of connection with species as remote from us as bees, insects and flowers, and in such an abstract realm as formal components of beauty, then how much closer must the same pattern of connection exist between human cultures, despite the very diversity of aesthetic expression. I believe Rose article is a major contribution in this respect. Her examination of the Aboriginal conception of Dreaming explains that Dreaming is the work that engages with life’s desire to be in motion. In an aesthetic sense Dreaming brings time, motion and finitude into connection with the enduring. The performative aspects of dance in Aboriginal culture, together with its requisite interludes, express these patterns of Dreaming, as a making and an unmaking of the world . Life is performed as knowing its own transience. The dancing patterns embrace aesthetic conjunctions of an ephemeral world. Yet individual form is impelled towards some aspect of re-entry into a world of ecological systems, a re-entry of part to whole. That part of the unmaking of life Rose calls the “erotics of re-entry,” the erotics of life in motion returning to its source .

The comparative aspect that I find most striking in the Australian example is the absence of absolutes. Dreaming contains no crusade for the absolute preservation of life as is found in current Roman Catholic doctrine, absolute preservation is far from the Aboriginal connections between the outpouring presence of life, and its finitude, and moving toward a return. At the same time Dreaming can be taken as a counterpoint to the absolutes of secular western scientific rationality. The latter has engineered the genetic manipulation of wheat and other food crops so that crops no longer relate to their whole environment but only parts of it, or can no longer seed themselves therefore cannot evolve, or through transgenic transplant are genetically stopped from joining in life’s ebullient motion. We must ponder. The rhythms of life and death evoked in Dreaming, are strong contrasts to transcendental absolutes on the one side, and on the other, the support given in natural science to biocide. Can we, as humans, recognize the relation between health and beauty sufficiently to reject ugly degradation in the science of biocide?

Peter Harries-Jones is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Anthropology, York University , Ontario


1. Bateson certainly did not ignore global climate warming , in fact he confidently predicted in the 1960s that global warming would occur unless that trend was stopped through human action. His focus remained on non-linear feedback, on the biosphere as a type of thermostat which, he maintained, would bring about not only a continuous change to a hotter climate, but the spectre of abrupt discontinuous ecosystem change. The latter possibility, of ecosystem collapse, has only come to the forefront in the last couple of years, as reported in recent United Nations and U.S. Pentagon studies on global climate change.

2. M’Closkey uses Bateson’s communicational perspective to show why Navajo women continue to weave their rugs under persistent, difficult conditions, revealing in the process how a Navajo perception of pattern as a spiritual embodiment, and Anglo notions of “pattern” in a rug- as- commodity, display two very different epistemologies. Anglo historians have always maintained that the marketing of Navajo rugs has “saved” the Navajo from economic extinction. M’Closkey documents the reverse scenario: Anglo insistence in multiplying commoditized forms of Navajo rug patterns – represented in countless “knock-offs” – threatens Navajo life ways. In addition, dualistic categories of sacred and profane, traditional and modern, used by western social science are categories that fragment and abstract from larger patterns of holism which Navajo weavers display in their rugs.


Bateson , Gregory and M.C. Bateson. 1987. Angels Fear: towards an epistemology of the sacred. New York : Macmillan Publishing.

Callicott, J. Baird. 1994. Earth’s Insights: a multicultural survey of ecological ethics from the Mediterranean basin to the Australian Outback . Berkeley : University of California Press.

M’Closkey, Kathy. 2004. “Towards an understanding of Navajo aesthetics” in SEED (Semiotics, Evolution, Energy and Development ) Volume 4.1 (Special Issue Celebrating Gregory Bateson’s Centennial) Online:

M’Closkey, Kathy. 2002. Swept Under the Rug: a hidden history of Navajo Weaving. Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press.

Margulis, L and Sagan, D. 2002. Acquiring Genomes. A Theory of the Origin of Species . New York : Basic Books.

Pollan, Michael. 2001. The Botany of Desire: a plant’s-eye view of the world. New York : Random House.

Sheldrake, Rupert. 1981. A New Science of Life: the hypothesis of Formative Causation. Los Angeles : J.P. Tarcher Inc.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]