“What is the pattern that connects? What pattern connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me? And me to you? What is the pattern that connects all living creatures? “
– Gregory Bateson – “Mind and Nature”
Pause for a moment and consider Gregory Bateson’s famous question quoted above. As you ponder the question. consider how the atoms created by stars are the same atoms in our bodies as well as in rocks. Consider that all living matter has a common genetic heritage. Observe a flock of birds and consider how and why they fly together in much the same way as fish schools, animal herds and human crowds.
Bateson was a philosopher who made his point by posing a question. Like many philosophers, Bateson rarely tendered an answer. But, his question characterized a major change in how people were beginning to think about Nature’s patterns. A little history will add some context.
In 1953, Watson and Crick discovered that genetic material, DNA, was shaped like a double helix. This finding gave a structural explanation to Darwin’s theory of evolution and prompted the field of Molecular Biology to search for precise relationships between genes within an organism and its physical characteristics. It seemed that everyone was studying fruit flies as they attempted to precisely relate a given gene to a structural characteristic such as eye color or wing shape. This was “reductionist” thinking in its heyday where it was believed that the understanding of an entire object could be gained simply by analyzing its component parts.
By the 1960’s, a few scientists were quietly creating a revolution of their own. They were seeing that non-living and living groups, such as ecosystems, behaved in ways that reflected much more than the behaviors of the individual components within a group. A system is a group of interacting parts that function as a whole. Scientists began to realize that a system can show unexpected features and behavior that cannot be gleaned from the features and behaviors of the individual parts. Ant colonies, beehives, and ecosystems were shown to be super-organisms whose behavior could not be deduced from the behavior of individual ants, bees, or the members of a system. Theories about the characteristics of systematic behavior were emerging.
By 1980, systems research scientists coined words like “complex systems” and “chaos”. With the advent of the PC computer, systems were being simulated in laboratories and a paradigm shift in thinking from reductionism to a systematic world view was taking place. Reductionism was not considered bad. It is simply incomplete. One needs to view an entire system as well as its parts.
One of these early pioneers in systems thinking was Gregory Bateson (1904 – 1980). Like Rachel Carson, Barry Commoner , and others, Bateson was a modern thinker who was convinced that everything in this world is connected in some way. According to Stephen Nachmanovitch, one of Bateson’s students:
“..Bateson was part of a long tradition of thinkers who have had a preference for seeing patterns which connect rather than things and forces…William Bateson (his father) passed on to Gregory the notion that…the most important question is not ‘what pieces is the system made of?’ .. but how do the pieces connect to each other? “.
Bateson saw reductionism as an incomplete way to describe Nature. He embraced a systematic point of view where the behavior of any system is far more than the sum of the behaviors of its parts.
Bateson does offer some context for his famous question. He was considered an expert in cybernetics and saw the “pattern that connects” as information flow between entities. In a written celebration of Bateson’s life :
“Bateson’s underlying message is that the only way we can hope to understand the world around us is by adopting a truly holistic attitude toward it. He saw clearly, perhaps sooner than anyone else, the dangerously unsustainable nature of industrial civilisation and identified the root cause for this disastrous course we had taken. He understood that humanity is an integral part of a wider network of systems…he does present us with a revolutionary way of looking at the problems.”
The legacy of Bateson’s question is very much alive today – some 40 years later. The systems revolution in science is growing by leaps and bounds. It has been shown that there is not a direct link between an organism’s individual genes and its physical characteristics. Instead, genes are now viewed as storehouses of information. That information is acted upon by other mechanisms (including the environment outside of the organism). And, reductionism has taken on the role of working with systematic thinkers to produce new findings.
For those of you who like to ponder, or those of you who are guiding a group of young people in a sustainability education program , ask and consider Bateson’s question “What is the pattern that connects?”. You might take a look at this crab claw and ask how you (and your students) are connected to it. In raising the question, you will be joining many of Bateson’s students in pondering connections in Nature and why they exist.
Bateson’s question directs you or your group to think about Nature and its interrelationships in basic terms. Terms that can easily be adapted to any sustainability education program at any level.
I’d love to hear from those of you who are doing any form of environmental education. What do you think?
My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.