Today the purposes of consciousness are implemented by more and more effective machinery, transportation systems, airplanes, weaponry, medicine, pesticides and so forth. Conscious purpose is now empowered to upset the balances of the body, of society, and of the biological world around us. A pathology – a loss of balance – is threatened.
On the one hand we have the systemic nature of the individual human being, the systemic nature of the culture in which he lives, and the systemic nature of the biological ecological system around him; and on the other hand, the curious twist in the systemic nature of the individual man whereby consciousness is almost by necessity, blinded to the systemic nature of the man himself. Purposive consciousness, pulls out from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure. If you follow the common-sense dictates of consciousness you become, effectively, greedy and unwise.
Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished… Systems are punishing of any species unwise enough to quarrel with its ecology. Call the systemic forces God if you will.
Gregory Bateson serves as a wonderful introduction to some of the central concepts of ecology. The son of William Bateson, the scientist who popularised Mendelian inheritance and introduced the term genetics into scientific discourse, Gregory was a disciplinary wanderer, with a career in academia which saw him drift through departments as diverse as anthropology, biology, psychology and cybernetics.
Bateson understood that the academic system he inhabited excelled at the process of analysis (meaning to take apart), which had yielded many of the advances of industrial capitalism. However it lacked a similar system of synthesis, or putting knowledge together. Students gained detailed understanding of subjects which remained isolated from each other, a problem still rife within academic education today. How are students expected to understand the ways in which economics, science, politics, history and cultural geography intersect when they are always partitioned into separate areas?
Bateson excelled at making connections between these areas, in seeing the patterns that connected seemingly disparate areas, a theme which underlay much of the work conducted by cyberneticists who were interested in understanding the processes of feedback which allowed control of systems, but also allowed insight into the way that learning occurs.
Bateson’s gift for connectivity made him one of the godfathers of modern ecology – etymologically meaning the science of (connections between) the household. A key concept introduced by Bateson is that of three ecologies; mind, society and environment. Each of these interconnected complex systems can be understood as a dynamic ecology of subsystems, which together display emergent qualities which cannot be reduced to the activity of the parts.
Forgoing the dualistic ontology which has in many ways dominated western culture Bateson instead preached an understanding of being based on immanence. Whereas Descartes saw the body and mind/soul as two distinct entities, for Bateson consciousness is an emergent phenomena which occurs due to the complex interplay of the human brain, body and external physical environment. Consequently, Bateson is one of the founders of the concept of distributed consciousness. When answering the question as to whether or not a computer could think, Bateson claimed that the thinking system is always the man and the technology and the environment in which they are situated. The knowledge cannot reside in any single component if somehow abstracted from the larger system.
Bateson also campaigned politically, arguing that the competitive ethos of capitalism which saw man try to control nature rather than understand the ways in which society is always dependent on ecological circuity, was leading to a loss of balance within the environmental systems on which humans are ultimately dependent.
The unit of survival is organism plus environment. We are learning by bitter experience that the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself.
Formerly we thought of a hierarchy of taxa – individual, family line, subspecies, species etc – as the unit of survival. We now see a different hierarchy of units – gene-in-organism, organism-in-environment, ecosystem, etc. Ecology in the widest sense turns out to be the study of the interaction and survival of ideas and programs (ie differences, complexes of differences) in circuits.
With the current global understandings of climate change and resource depletion, Bateson’s predictions from over 35 years ago appear ominously accurate. In understanding his ecological methods to approaching these systemic problems, perhaps we can begin to find solutions beyond the technological quick fixes which have thus far failed, searching instead for genuine sustainability allied to social action which will address the material inequalities which plague our global village.