Gregory Bateson, "Mind and Nature," and the term "patterns of connection"

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By Gregory Bateson

I experienced this as a report on a profound source of wisdom delivered by someone who had never fully understood it and at the time of writing recalled nothing more than scattered phrases. On my first reading I ploughed through, enduring what I assumed was the incoherence of an aging intellectual, egged on only by his identification of thinking with evolving, an association dear to me. To gather more reflections on this theme I read the book a second time, this time picking up his phrase “patterns of connection.” It has haunted me since. In what follows I cannot distinguish between what came from him and what I’ve devised myself.

Patterns of connection are what distinguishes life from non-life. Chemical phenomena may exhibit scattered patterns of connection, but they are seldom embedded in other patterns of connection as is typical of life. Patterns of connection are found in both human minds and evolution. Patterns of connection are the very substance of life. Life consists of matter, and patterns of connection. That came to seem the essence of what life consists of.

Bateson is not a pantheist, he does not believe these patterns of connection lie inherent in matter. They are forms matter can be given. They arise de novo in life. Evolution is the creation of these patterns. A theory of evolution must first of all account for how they arise.

I tried to come up with a pithier alternative to “patterns of connection,” but couldn’t find one. It seems to express a concept we’re poorly equipped to operate. Essentially it’s a pattern of channels that connect two contexts. Here are examples: a switchboard connecting telephone customers; a dashboard providing a driver with control over the operation of a car; a model, such as a computer model, that maps the patterns of connection between other contexts on the basis of which a dashboard could be made; metaphor, or more elaborately a form of discourse connecting a familiar context with another to be explored; a story that models connections as events happening over time; theories about evolution. More: the Krebs cycle, that connects oxygen-rich and energy-poor environments through a brew of catalysts and chemical flows; the mental apparatus by which the imagination of a dancer gets turned into precisely-corresponding bodily movements; whatever connects epigenetic management of genome function to the outside world. These can be satisfactorily accounted for only through a definition of the pattern of connections between two contexts.

The rest of Bateson’s text can be looked at as descriptions of the habits of thought required for seeing the world in these terms. It is quite possible that young students might gain enormously from these—I found them inscrutable.

He makes a great deal of stochastic processes. From his glossary: “…a sequence of events that combines a random component with a selective process so that only certain outcomes of the random are allowed to endure…” He sees both human thought and evolution as being driven by this kind of process--the combination of mutation and natural selection would be an example. Here we differ. I see patterns of connection providing scope for probes and tests within which randomness is severely channeled, and failure being detected within the pattern of connection before it can take effect in the destination context. Such a process amounts to intelligent trial and error.


“I shall assume that thought resembles evolution in being a stochastic process.” “We face, then, two great stochastic systems that are partly in interaction and partly isolated from each other. One system is within the individual and is called learning, the other is imminent in heredity and in populations and is called evolution. One is a matter of the single lifetime, the other is a matter of multiple generations or many individuals.” “If you want to understand mental process, look at biological evolution and conversely if you want to understand biological evolution, go look at mental process.”

After listing properties of mind: “I shall argue that the phenomena which we call thought, evolution, ecology, life, learning, and the like occur only in systems that satisfy these criteria…. I do not believe that single subatomic particles are ‘minds’ in my sense because I do believe that mental process is always a sequence of interactions between parts…. The theory of mind presented here is holistic and, like all serious holisms, is premised upon the differentiation and interaction of parts.”

“…the sort of system I call mind is capable of purpose and choice by way of its self-corrective possibilities…. It is influenced by ‘maps,’ never by territory, and is therefore limited by the generalization that its receipt of information will never prove anything about the world or about itself.”

“In sum, I shall assume that evolutionary change and somatic change (including learning and thought) are fundamentally similar, that both are stochastic in nature, although surely the ideas (injunctions, descriptive propositions, and so on) on which each process works are of totally different logical typing from the typing of ideas in the other process.”

“In any case, there are no doubt many ways of looking at animal forms. And because we are embarked on a Platonic study of the parallelism between creative thinking and that vast mental processes called biological evolution, it is worthwhile to ask in every instance: Is this way of looking at the phenomena somehow represented or paralleled within the organizational system of the phenomena themselves? Do any of the genetic messages and static signs that determine the phenotype have any sort of syntax (for lack of a better word) which would divide ‘typological’ from ‘syntactic’ thinking. Can we recognize, among the very messages which create and shape animal forms, some messages more typological and some more synthetic?” [He is distinguishing between a world of pattern and number, and a world of quantities. I didn’t understand.]

Mind and Nature: Gregory Bateson

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
Mind and Nature evolution

"Dissipative structures," networks, and consciousness

Stanley Salthe has turned me on to Ilya Prigogine's neat term, "dissipative structures." It updates the idea of pantheism. Instead of looking for the origins of intelligence and consciousness in matter itself it suggests looking for them in the processes by which concentrations of energy in natural systems dissipate. This appeals to me because it neatly labels a continuum of concepts from non-living matter all the way to our own conscious experience. It may not suggest any answers to how life or consciousness arose but it could furnish us with a better language in which to phrase the questions.

Here's how Salthe introduced the phrase. Of the inapplicability of physics to such unique events as the origin of life, the big bang, and consciousness he wrote

Well, of course, the emergence of consciousness is 'the hard problem'  It too is inconceivable by way of physicochemical discourse.  I have concluded that it is best to assume that all dissipative structures have some degree of consciousness as generated by their activities. This obviates the need to imagine its emergence in brains.  Brains would just happen to be forms that facilitate FOCUSING.  Non-brain types, like trees would be experiencing something like the meditative state, and big ones like drainage systems would be so 'slow' compared to our scale as to be undetectable by us.

I see a cascade of terms supported by the phrase "dissipative structures" starting thus: the emergence of a purely physical dissipative structure such as a river basin invokes network effects amounting to some rudiment of intelligence. Next: associated with this intelligence would be a potential for consciousness. Further: evolution of life would be an increment in the efficiency of such dissipative structures. Finally: in organisms with brains evolution would focus sufficient potential for consciousness for it to become volitional consciousness.

Note: this is not intended to be defensible in terms of physics and logic. Rather, it harnesses traditional terms such as "network," "intelligence," "potential for consciousness," implicitly the actualization of a potential, and "consciousness of consciousness" into a primitive vocabulary stretching from processes in non-living matter to volitional consciousness. That's all I value in it.

To my question, Does what one can deduce about dissipative structures illuminate the nature of evolution, he replied:

Many of them do not last long enough to evolve.  They do, however, develop in simple ways. But more complex ones, like drainage systems, could certainly be seen to evolve.  They also develop, and their evolution amounts to individuation  This occurs even with simple ones like tornadoes.  Organic evolution occurs the way we see it because of the internally stored information.  So, organisms are exceptionally stable dissipative structures (again because of that stored info), and it is that stability that affords a 'visible' evolution.

Another question: Is there a process of complexification among dissipative structures that one can imagine grading into evolution of life? To this he replied:

I can't imagine anything "grading into" the genetic system. The way I see it, the origin of life (infection by genome) took place in a larger scale, fairly stable dissipative structure involving water. This larger structure gradually evolved into microscopic and mesoscopic living forms.

I plan to link "dissipative structures" with "patterns of connection," as in "dissipative structures are the physical counterpart of the intelligence implicit in patterns of connection."

Stanley N. Salthe is Professor Emeritus, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, Visiting Scientist in Biological Sciences, Binghamton University, and Associate Researcher of the Center for the Philosophy of Nature and Science Studies of the University of Copenhagen.

Stuart Pivar's "The Urform Theory: Evolution Without Darwin"

Imagine reaching through a sausage skin from one end, grabbing the other end and pulling it back towards you, then joining the two ends together. You've made a torus. Now fill the space enclosed between the two layers with protoplasm, and suppose the skin of the torus to be cell membrane. You've made a cell with unusual properties that Pivar refers to as "germ plasm".

For this cell to become mobile, imagine the skin on the inside crawling or being pulled towards one end. The torus as a whole will move, like a tank, as it extends its skin at one end and pulls it up inside at the other. This would allow it to migrate within a cluster of such cells.

If cuts across the torus are self-healing it will duplicate itself. If it could continuously grow itself then by repeated budding it could duplicate itself endlessly to form masses of similar cells or columns of them to form segments.

Form could be generated in the developing embryo by what happens to the inner surface of the torus as it is compressed to fit within the outer surface. As that inner surface is squeezed it could be compressed into three, four or five evenly-spaced "spokes," with or without bulbs at the ends that become new tissues. This is how an everted blastula could generate a complex cross section that through further differentiation and growth could become organs, bones and muscle blocks. Now imagine a torus sending out an extension. This extension could now take on similar forms to become antennae or limbs. Finally, such tori can be imagined splitting across into circular disks and along their sides to form flat sheets.

Summary: this urform is how specifications for the basic forms of a living creative could be passed on from egg to egg and from one cell to each of many cells, and what could generate form in early development in the embryo. That much I got from a first reading of Stuart Pivar's The Urform Theory: Evolution Without Darwin. And it's a lot. I found the idea plausible and persuasive. This could account for the generation and replication of characteristic cell, tube, segment and sheet elements of living tissues.

Having a generator of 3D form elements that could be programmed through a sequence of instructions would nicely narrow our prescription for a complete mechanism for development and evolution. A generator of form such as this urform surely must synch with some higher-order system that directs its growth and development. Mating among birds of paradise combines form with characteristic movements and colors and sounds, so the control of form is not separate from control of other aspects of performance. And in the embryo form and time are intricately connected.

What must that system consist of? Something like video editing software, with multiple control tracks arranged parallel over time. There would be channels for form that manage the growth and development of urform elements, channels calling on protein production, other channels of switches for turning sub-channels on and off, and so on. For me, having something like the urform provide a three-dimensional form-generation capability helps by reducing form to merely one of many quite similar linear time-linked control capabilities. This nicely ties in with recent research on the role of the genome in the direction of life processes, as reported in James Shapiro's "Evolution: View from the 21st Century."

If we imagine life to be controlled from such a multitrack dashboard, the same in essence for all life but differing from species to species in the programming of the tracks, then we can refer all living processes to it, including development, homeostasis, repair, and evolution. Such a dashboard has been implied in books such as Shapiro's. We may even see evolution in terms of the organization and increase in number of these tracks over time. We could reinterpret Lamarckism's two mechanisms thus: use and disuse result in shifting settings along the tracks, major creative leaps involve the additions of new tracks

This could give us an improved context in which to consider mechanisms of evolution. For example, one might ask, could such a dashboard evolve through selection of point mutations of genes? Change of settings in a channel, perhaps yes. The addition of new channels, perhaps not. And, how is the time dimension maintained constant across all the tracks? Can that be specified by the genome, or is it a property of protoplasm?

Pivar's promotion of the urform concept encourages major rethinking about living processes.

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
The Urform Theory: Evolution Without Darwin evolution

Celebrating human exceptionalism by writing stories

Why bother to buck the tide and oppose Darwinism? One reason is no doubt simply to be a dissident, today's equivalent of épater le bourgeoisie. But my experience of my fellow anti-Darwinists is that more often it stems from a compulsion to give ourselves a privileged place in the scheme of things. In this respect I suspect we’re not much different from Christians who reacted against Darwin in the 19th Century. Stephen Gould tried to correct for such human exceptionalism by insisting humans were an insignificant side branch of a mere sidebranch of the entire tree of life. The story of life on Earth was primarily concerned with bacteria, he said.

One form of exceptionalism is to provide us with an exclusive alternate realm of existence. Human life cannot be limited to popping into the world as an egg cell from nothing more than two people having sex, and ceasing to exist at dying, perhaps in a meaningless car crash. Life feels too significant to be so circumstantial. It must have some meaningful extension into a more solemn environment than this vale of tears. Darwinism, which allows us no more dignity than a rabbit ending as road kill under our wheels, must be opposed. Since the afterlife contains mostly humans, else we’d drown in a vast sea of beetles and bacteria, I take it to  be an example of human exceptionalism.

Another way to celebrate human exceptionalism is to project it over the rest of the living world. One expression of this kind of human exceptionalism is to believe in a God who created all creatures but loves only us, gives only us souls, and sends his son to die just for us, not for any other species—they are  all formed so as to serve our needs. A modern form is to search for a pattern in human history that can then be projected back as the pattern driving the evolution of all living kingdoms. Since human exceptionalism demands such a coherent pattern in human history, once it is identified the randomness inherent in Darwinism will signal it cannot be what drives the evolution of all living creatures.

Another kind of human exceptionalism is to invest life as a whole with dignity worthy of a tree of life including us. One way is to suppose life came from another astronomical body, presumably with a natural greater dignity than exists on Earth. Life’s provenance may even be extended to the heart of stars, even to the big bang, so the roots of human existence can be celebrated as infinite and eternal.

My kind of human exceptionalism is to demand that a theory of evolution be able to account for the consciousness and free will I experience. Since Darwinism can’t, since in fact it endorses physicalism’s denial of a volitional self, I claim Darwinism must be wrong. Then, only then, do I look for reasons why.

Physicalism represents the opposite form of human exceptionalism to mine. The pinnacle of human achievement to date is modern science’s comprehensive understanding of matter and physical processes. That achievement must be honored by projecting physics over all phenomena, even those to which physics has not yet been (may not allow itself to be) applied, such as evolution and human consciousness. The experience of free will must be sacrificed in homage to the achievement represented by modern physics.

It’s possible there are people who oppose Darwinism simply because they see errors in it. So far, though, I haven’t seen any one like that in my own circle of anti-Darwinists. Maybe James Shapiro?

Given that we all celebrate human exceptionalism in different ways, could there be some better way we can contribute, in our different ways, to that goal , some more direct way, than attacking Darwinism? Maybe by collaborating to write a set of fantasy and science fiction stories celebrating human exceptionalism. Of course, our stories probably wouldn't stand out much. That's what most fantasy and science fiction is about.

(Note, I wrote this before writing "Evolution for the Humanities" where I did come up with a new kind of human exceptionalism.)

List of others voicing alternatives to Darwinism

People merely criticizing the modern synthesis appear in "Critiques of Darwinism."
Rupert Sheldrake for his morphogenic fields. A New Science of Life and more recent books – claims a process known as morphic resonance: the past forms and behaviors of organisms, influence organisms in the present through direct connections across time and space. Strong critic of reductionism, materialism and neo-Darwinism.

Brian Goodwin

Stuart Pivar for the Urform hypothesis , a factor primarily in embryogenesis. Rejects natural selection, instead complex biological forms arise through self-organization of embryological processes. Pivar’s theory is mechanist but strongly opposes natural selection

Rhawn Joseph has the most radical non-Darwinian evolution theory going?

Creative Evolution: A Physicist's Resolution Between Darwinism and Intelligent Design Monist idealism

Bruce Lipton author of The Biology of Belief  – he claims that genes and DNA do not control biology, instead DNA is controlled by signals from outside the cell, he has a mass of evidence that it is consciousness

Antonio Lima-de-Faria author of Evolution without Selection, Form and Function by Autoevolution and more recent books. – Claims evolution occurs due to internal physico-chemical factors and not natural selection. Mentioned in the The Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry

Guy Murchie, the earth is not only alive, but also conscious and sentient superorganism

Richard Milton for book Shattering the Myths of Darwinism

Francis Hitching The Neck of the Giraffe or Where Darwin Went Wrong

James Le Fanu 2009 released attack on Darwinism

Robert Wesson, Beyond natural selection, hundreds of examples of organisms in nature that defy natural selection