Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson (9 May 1904 – 4 July 1980) was an English anthropologist, social scientist, linguist, visual anthropologist, semiotician, and cyberneticist whose work intersected that of many other fields. Born in Grantchester, England, Bateson was the third and youngest son of Caroline Beatrice Durham and the distinguished geneticist William Bateson. He was named Gregory after Gregor Mendel, the Austrian monk who founded the modern science of genetics.

Bateson attended Charterhouse School from 1917 to 1921, then went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts in biology at St. John’s College, Cambridge, in 1925. He continued his studies at Cambridge from 1927 to 1929. Bateson’s life was greatly affected by the death of his two brothers: John, killed in World War I, and Martin, who died by suicide in 1922 after coming into conflict with his father over his ambition to become a poet and playwright.

In the late 1920s, Bateson began his career as an anthropologist, starting with a trip to New Guinea in 1927. He spent several years studying the people of New Guinea and Bali, developing his concept of schismogenesis based on his fieldwork. During the 1940s, he helped extend systems theory and cybernetics to the social and behavioral sciences, and served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II.

After the war, Bateson moved to the United States and began working at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, California. There, along with colleagues Donald Jackson, Jay Haley, and John Weakland, he developed the double-bind theory of schizophrenia. This theory suggested that individuals might develop schizophrenia if they repeatedly received contradictory messages from family members, and were unable to address the confusion or leave the situation.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Bateson continued to make significant contributions to various fields. He was one of the original members of the core group of the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics (1941–1960) and the later set on Group Processes (1954–1960). In 1956, Bateson became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

In the 1970s, Bateson taught at the Humanistic Psychology Institute in San Francisco (later renamed Saybrook University) and joined the faculty of Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1976 and was appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of California by Governor Jerry Brown, a position he held until his death.

Bateson was married three times: first to American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead from 1936 to 1950, then to Elizabeth “Betty” Sumner from 1951 to 1957, and finally to therapist and social worker Lois Cammack from 1961 until his death in 1980. He had three children: Mary Catherine Bateson (with Margaret Mead), John Sumner Bateson (with Betty Sumner), and Nora Bateson (with Lois Cammack).

A central theme in Bateson’s work was the study of communication and relationships between living beings. He believed that these relationships formed systems, and that understanding the structure and dynamics of these systems was essential to understanding behavior and communication. Bateson applied this perspective to a wide range of subjects, from animal behavior and learning to family dynamics and the development of psychiatric disorders.

Some of Bateson’s most influential works include Naven (1936), a study of the Iatmul people of New Guinea; Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), a collection of his essays; and Mind and Nature (1979), in which he explored the connections between the mental and physical worlds.

Gregory Bateson died on July 4, 1980, at the age of 76, at the Zen Center in San Francisco, California. His ideas continue to influence researchers and thinkers in fields as diverse as anthropology, psychology, family therapy, organizational development, and environmental studies. The 2014 novel Euphoria by Lily King is a fictionalized account of Bateson’s relationships with Mead and Reo Fortune in pre-WWII New Guinea.