Upside-Down Gods: Gregory Bateson's World of Difference

Upside-Down Gods: Gregory Bateson's World of Difference

Upside-Down Gods: Gregory Bateson's World of Difference

Upside-Down Gods: Gregory Bateson's World of Difference


Science’s conventional understanding of environment as an inert material resource underlies our unwillingness to acknowledge the military-industrial role in ongoing ecological catastrophes. In a crucial challenge to modern science’s exclusive attachment to materialist premises, Bateson reframed culture, psychology, biology, and evolution in terms of feedback and communication, fundamentally altering perception of our relationship with nature.

This intellectual biography covers the whole trajectory of Bateson’s career, from his first anthropological work alongside Margaret Mead through the continuing relevance of his late forays into biosemiotics. Harries-Jones shows how the sum of Bateson’s thinking across numerous fields turns our notions of causality upside down, providing a moral divide between sustainable creativity and our current biocide.


The Pattern is the thing.


Gregory Bateson has been acclaimed as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century. He was without doubt a transdisciplinary thinker, a necessary prerequisite for any writer putting the case for holism. He moved from discipline to discipline during his life, first as a biologist under the watchful eye of his own father, William Bateson—a famous biologist in his day— next as an anthropologist, then as a social psychologist, and communications theorist—one of the founding members of cybernetics—then as a psychotherapist, and finally as an ecologist. He also helped introduce the concept of feedback as a dynamic aspect of all natural organization. Feedback in Bateson’s view provides a means through which it is possible to trace the changing form of pattern in the living world. This is because natural systems are in continual movement; as they oscillate, they are self-organizing and, at the same time, are self-correcting in their dynamics of organization. Feedback refers to their self-correcting dynamics.

His transdisciplinary approach with its strong emphasis on feedback and the nonlinearity of cultural, psychological, and biological order led him to believe that a great deal of previous writing on the question “What is life?” had been poorly posed. All too often the question had become answered in terms of life-as-machine. To Bateson, life was not a machine; there are fundamental differences between a mechanistic and a nonmechanistic understanding of existence, in that life is self-organizing. The question “What is life?” had also been posed in terms of the separation of “internal” and “external” aspects of life, a separation between “withinness” of specific biological characteristics, genes, and “external” laws of randomness and “natural selection.” Bateson be-

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