Reviewed by Jean Hardy
“Our most dangerous characteristic is our propensity to develop and rely on our conscious purposes…until we see the world as a network of relating, as a vast interrelated process of which we are dependent members, we will not be fit to survive in it.” (p.29).
All the elements of the universe, as vast as the Milky Way or as small as the working of, say, an eye, are in this view essentially systems of mind, conscious or unconscious. Gregory Bateson maintains that Mind—some would say spirit—moves through all of living creation. We humans can only perceive a sliver of the whole through trying to understand the world through the framework of scientific rationality, and this leads to the blind alleys humans constantly enter, and to dangerous hubris.
Noel Charlton has done a great service in this devoted study of Bateson’s work. Gregory Bateson’s search began earlier than the present burgeoning of insight springing from complexity and chaos theory: he was born in 1904 and died in 1980. He became increasingly concerned through his wide experience and reading in many disciplines—in anthropology, psychology, systems thinking, the study of human and other animal consciousness, and ecology—that we as the human race are going the wrong way. From the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries we have relied disastrously on rationality and Western science to promote a worldview which is about attempting human control of the forces of Nature, trying to defeat uncertainty, and ignoring such qualities as beauty, wonder, love and awe. Bateson believed that the human conscious mind is only of a limited quality—and the failure to recognise and acknowledge this has led many thinkers and cultures to consider that consciousness is a purely human phenomenon experienced only by individuals. Such a view is dangerous and is not true.
Like Jung, Bateson saw the collective unconscious mind as greater and wiser than consciousness; unconscious natural flow is the context of consciousness. He maintained that the linking of the beautiful with the ecologically healthy is the key to a true perspective of the world: “…nothing can ever be understood in isolation from its context, and the context must be seen as depending on patterning” (p.43). There is a sacred order in the world. The individual person has to touch into this unconscious order to see beyond the limited mindset of modern Western understanding. The Western world needs the ‘yin’, the perceptions of poets, artists, and musicians, those willing to experience the mystery of the natural world to be enabled to come closer to a truer nature of things.
Gregory Bateson was born into an intellectual family living in Grantchester, near Cambridge. His father was the geneticist William Bateson, and Gregory was called after Gregor Mendel. His parents were part of an academic and largely scientific circle containing such well known families as the Whiteheads and Huxleys. The children of the family were trained to be atheistic naturalists. William Bateson, however, questioned theories of evolution as developed by Darwin, particularly in relation to the actual process by which characteristics were transmitted through generations, and this questioning remained lifelong with his son. William also had a fascination with form and pattern in Nature and this too was shared by Gregory throughout his life.
Gregory left England in the 1920s, after graduating with a first class degree in the Natural Sciences from Cambridge. He went on to study social anthropology, working in New Guinea, married Margaret Mead in 1935, and collaborated with her in writing the book Balinese Character. His interest in human—and eventually animal—psychology flourished, and one of his early academic posts was as Lecturer in Medical Anthropology with the Psychology Department at the University of California Medical School in the late 1940s. He moved beyond science into art and a more systematic appreciation of beauty, and then in the later part of his life, more specifically into ecology. He came to see the deepest problem of the human race as a question of our worldview, of our blinkered conscious vision. And he perceived, beyond and within all the mind systems, a sacred element which his birth family had denied.
Noel has a deep love of Gregory Bateson’s work, and this study is both a doctoral thesis and a now thankfully a published book. It has the great advantage of this combination in that it is careful, very well researched with a massive bibliography and is takes pains to differentiate Bateson’s views from those of the writers who influenced his subject. My only caveat is that it led to, say, Chapter Five, which is a synopsis of separate pieces of writing not really incorporated into the whole. I feel Noel could have written this chapter with more panache.
Reading Noel Charlton’s study has made me dig out the only Bateson book I presently have, which is Mind and Nature and made me resolve to buy Steps to an Ecology of Mind. I feel that what Noel has done here is to acknowledge the pioneering and searching path of a person he deeply admires, and with this book he has brought Bateson once more into the forefront of modern ecological thought.