A Legacy for Living Systems: Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics

Dordrecht: Springer 2009


Gregory Bateson was a precursor not only for biosemiotics, as explored in this book, but for many kinds of rethinking in this century of ideas that were too narrowly dependent on the prevailing epistemological dogmas of the 20th century, dogmas that Bateson claimed to be based on erroneous suppositions. Reading through the chapters of this book, produced by scholars of very different backgrounds one is repeatedly reminded of the sheer multitude of facets that Bateson could bring to bear on his groundbreaking attempt to bridge the Cartesian split in modern thinking. 

Most scientists tacitly assume that the questions of origins, the origin of life and the origin of language or consciousness, are solvable on the basis of materialistic science, but only few among them seem to recognize the true enormity of the challenge posed by this belief. Bateson was one of those few. And while his thinking has influenced  scholars from a wide range of fields dealing in one way or another with aspects of communication and epistemology, mainstream biology unfortunately has shown little interest in such matters, clinging instead to a simplified description of the natural world -- a description that has never fully broken free of the Cartesian body-mind distinction and sees the natural world as purely material rather than shaped by processes and organization. Bateson understood that the epistemological errors behind this scientific attitude was also responsible for the inability of science to help us cope with the complex, unruly and messy problems confronting modern societies at many levels. He urged science to search for patterns that will emerge only in a broad-spectrum analysis of communication in all its forms This is the challenge to modern science and philosophy taken up by the authors of this book.

Bateson's attempt to bridge the Cartesian split in modern thinking is beautifully exhibited in a passage from the introduction to Mind and Nature that Brian Goodwin brings to our attention in chapter nine:

'Now I want to show you that whatever the word "story" means …., the fact of thinking in terms of stories does not isolate human beings as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemones, the coconut palms and the primroses. Rather, if the world be connected, if I am at all fundamentally right in what I am saying, then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all mind or minds whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones. Context and relevance must be characteristic not only of all so-called behavior (those stories which are projected out into 'action'), but also of all those internal stories, the sequences of the building up of the sea anemone. Its embryology must be somehow made of the stuff of stories. And behind that, again, the evolutionary process through millions of generations whereby the sea anemone, like you and me, came to be – that process, too, must be of the stuff of stories. There must be relevance in every step of phylogeny and among the steps' (Bateson 1979, 14).


List of contributors:

Mary Catherine Bateson, Jesper Hoffmeyer, Tyrone Cashman, Terrence Deacon, Jeremy Sherman,  Julie Hui, Luis Bruni, Robert Ulanowicz, Theresa Shilhab, Christian Gerlach, Brian Goodwin, Peter Harries-Jones, Donald favareau, Gregory Mengel, Søren Brier, Deborah Eicher-Catt

19© Jesper Hoffmeyer 2013