Gregory Bateson
Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Ballantine Books 1972

xv Introduction:
The Science of Mind and Order
The title of this book of collected essays and lectures is intended precisely to define the contents. The essays spread over thirty-five years, combine to propose a new way of thinking about ideas and about those aggregates of ideas which I call „minds“. This way of thinking I call the „ecology of mind“, or the ecology of ideas. It is a science which does not yet exist as an organised body of theory or knowledge.

The questions which the book raises are ecological: How do ideas interact?
Is there some sort of natural selection which determines the survival of some ideas and the extinction or death of others? What sort of economics limits the multiplicity of ideas in a given region of mind? What are the necessary conditions for stability (or survival) of such a system or subsystem?

Some of these questions are touched upon in the essays, but the main thrust of the book is to clear the way so that such questions can be meaningfully asked.

xxii I believe that it is simply not true that the fundamentals of science began in induction from experience, and I suggest that in the search for a bridgehead among the fundamentals we should go back to the very beginnings of science and philosophic thought ; certainly to a period before science, philosophy, and religion had become separate activities separately pursued by professionals in separate disciplines.

Consider, for example, the central origin myth of the Judaeo-Christian peoples. What are the fundamental philosophic and scientific problems with which this myth is concerned?

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void: and darkness
was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of low waters.

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God
divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness she called Night. And the evening and morning were the first day.

And God said is, Let there be a firmament in the midst
of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided
the waters which were under the firmament from the waters
which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and
the morning were the second day.

And God said, Let the waters under the Heaven be
gathered together along to one place, and left the dry land
appear: and God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.


Out of these first ten verses of thunderous prose, we can draw some of the premises or fundamentals of ancient Chaldean thought and it is strange to note how many on the fundamentals and problems of modern science are foreshadowed in the ancient document.

1. The problem on the origin and nature of matter is summarily dismissed.
2. The passage deals at length with the problem of the origin of order.
3. Separation is thus generated between the two sorts of problem. It is possible that this separation of problems was an error, but - error or not - the separation is maintained in the fundamentals of modern science. The conservative laws for matter and energy are still separate from the laws of form, negative entropy, and information.
4. Order is seen as a matter of sorting and dividing. But the essential notion in all sorting is that some difference shall cause some other difference at a later time. If we are sorting black balls from white balls, or large ball from small balls, a difference among the balls is to be followed by a difference in their location - balls of one class to one sack and balls of another class to another.
For such an operation we need something like as sieve, the threshold, or a sense organ. It is understandable, therefore, that the perceiving Entity should have been invoked to perform this function of creating an otherwise improbable order.
5. Closely linked with the sorting and dividing is the mystery of classification, to be followed later by the extraordinary human achievement of naming.

It is not at all clear that the various components of this myth are all products of inductive reasoning from experience. And the matter becomes still more puzzling when this origin myth is compared with others which embody different fundamental premises.

Among the Iatmul of New Guinea, the central origin myth, like the Genesis story, deals with the question of hoe dry land was separated from water. They say that in the beginning the crocodile Kavwokmali paddled with his front legs and with his hind legs; and his paddling kept the mud suspended in the water. The great culture hero, Kevembuangga, came with his spear and killed Kavwokmali. After that the mud settled and dry land was formed. Kavembuangga then stamped with his foot on the dryland, he proudly demonstrated „that it was good“.

Here then is a stronger case for deriving the myth from experience combined with inductive reasoning. After all, mud does remain in suspension if randomly stirred and does settle when the stirring ceases. Moreover, the Iatmul people live in the vast swamps of the Sepic River valley where the separation of land from water is imperfect. It is understandable that they might be interested in the differentiation of land from water.

In any case, the Iatmul have arrived at a theory of order which is almost a precise converse of that of the book of Genesis. In Iatmul thought sorting will occur if randomisation is prevented. In Genesis, an agent is invoked to do the sorting and dividing.

But both cultures alike assume the fundamental division between the problems of material creation and the problems of order and differentiation.

Returning now to the question of whether the fundamentals of science and/or philosophy were, at the primitive level, arrived by inductive reasoning from empirical data, we find that the answer is not simple.
It is difficult to see how the dichotomy between substance and form could be arrived at by inductive argument. No man, after all, has ever seen or experienced formless and unsorted matter; just as no man has ever seen or experienced a „random“ event. If, therefore, the notion of a universe „without form and void“ was arrived at by induction, it was by a monstrous - and perhaps erroneous - jump of extrapolation.

And even so, it is not clear that the starting point from which the primitive philosophers took off was observation. It is at least equally likely that dichotomy between form and substance was an unconscious deduction from the subject-predicate relation in the structure of primitive language. This however, is a matter beyond the reach of useful speculation.

Be that as it may, the central - but usually not explicit - subject matter of the lectures which I used to give and all these essays is the bridge between behavioural data and the „fundamentals“ of science and philosophy; and my critical comments above about the metaphoric use of „energy“ in the behavioural sciences add up to a rather simple accusation of many of my colleagues, that they have tried to build the bridge to the wrong half of the ancient dichotomy between form and substance. The conservative laws for energy and matter concern substance rather than form. But mental process, ideas, communication, organisation, differentiation, pattern, and so on, are matters of form rather than substance.

Within the body of fundamentals that half which deals with form has been dramatically enriched in the last thirty years by the discoveries of cybernetics and systems theory. This book is concerned with building a bridge between the facts of life and behaviour and what we know today of the nature of pattern and order.

Gregory Bateson


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