A Biography of Bateson



Most of Gregory Bateson's work was written and published as essays in periodicals and is concerned with four subjects: anthropology, psychiatry, biological evolution, and genetics and the new epistemology stemming from systems theory and ecology. The four subjects roughly correspond with the four overlapping periods in his life in which these were his central thoughts. The first, early period (anthropology) is characterized by "Social Structure of the Iatmul People of the Sepik River", 1932, and articles of similar vein. Bateson refers to his anthropological field work among the Baining as a failure because he felt he "didn't know what he was doing."

Back from New Guinea and having recently received the Cambridge M.A., Bateson was, in spite of his feeling of failure, elected to the Council of Fellows of St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1931 and again in 1934.

Bateson returned to Indonesia during the period 1936 to 1938 to research a mountain community on Bali, and in 1938 to the Iatmul of New Guinea. In 1938 he was William Wyse scholar at Cambridge.

The year 1940 took Gregory Bateson to the United States as specialist in Balinese material at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City, and later (1942-1943) anthropological film analyst at the Museum of Modern Arts New York City. At a Macy Foundation conference on cybernetics in 1942, Bateson met Warren McCulloch and Julian Bigelow who were talking about a new concept, "feedback" which Bateson felt he lacked when writing "Naven", one of his longer works, in 1936. At this time he also met Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann and Evelyn Hutchinson, all of whom have influenced his thinking and writing since World War II.

Bateson was overseas with the OSS in 1943 through 1945 and returned to New York as a Guggenheim Fellow, visiting professor in the graduate faculty at the New School, New York City, and at Harvard in 1947-1948. This marked the beginning of his psychiatric period during which he worked with Jurgen Ruesch in the Langley Porter Clinic where he lectured from 1946 to 1950. During the years 1949 to 1962 Bateson was the ethnologist in the Veterans Administration Hospital at Palo Alto, California. Here he received his first grant from Chester Barnard of the Rockefeller Foundation to study the role of the paradoxes of abstraction in communication. After Barnard's retirement, however, the Foundation staff felt that there were not enough results to justify renewing the grant. It was only after the grant ran out that the double bind hypothesis fell into place. Later there were grants from the Macy Foundation's Fund for Psychiatry and from the National Institute of Mental Health. Now divorced from Margaret Mead and remarried, Bateson felt that advances in logical typing in communication should be based on animal research and kept octopuses in his living room under close observation for over a year. Unfortunately, no grants to further these studies were forthcoming.

Bateson then spent a year in the Virgin Islands as director of John Lilly's dolphin laboratory where he studied the problems of cetacean communication but felt incapable of coping with the administrative problems posed by a laboratory of that size. At this time (1962) he received a Career Development Award under the National Institute of Dental Health - a much needed boost to his ego.

In 1963 Bateson was invited by Taylor Pryor to work in the Oceanic Foundation in Hawaii on cetacean and other problems of animal and human communication. Bateson has remained in Hawaii, more recently working with the Culture Institute of the East-West Center of the University of Hawaii. It is during the Hawaii period that Bateson developed the fourth period - the new epistemology - that stems from systems and ecology.

Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, N.Y., is a chronological publication of Gregory Bateson's shorter works and speeches. Arranged in five Parts, Parts II through V represent roughly the four types of subjects with which he has dealt and the four overlapping periods of his life.



This page was last updated on August 19, 1996, by Rob Sable.