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UC Berkeley Press Release

Conference to celebrate Gregory Bateson

– A conference honoring the late Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist whose trailblazing work profoundly affected fields from ecology to evolution, from technology to family therapy, begins at the University of California, Berkeley, on Friday (Nov. 19).

An international array of scholars and others will gather at the Lawrence Hall of Science to assess the contributions of Bateson in the light of the 21st century.

"Multiple Versions of the World" will feature a preview of part of a film about Bateson by his daughter, Nora Bateson, as well as a talk by her sister Mary Catherine Bateson, who worked with their late father.

One of Bateson's major legacies is his role as a major voice in the early development of the ecology movement as it took hold in the late 1960s and '70s in California and expanded into a global force.

Bateson also blazed new ground with publication of the books "Steps to an Ecology of the Mind" and "Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity." The books, published in the '70s and still popular today, reflect his primary impact.

"The books are about making the connection between biology and society, and recognizing the parallel between evolutionary and information processes," said Terrence Deacon, UC Berkeley professor of biological anthropology and linguistics and a conference speaker. "This unification brings evolution, psychology, anthropology and information perspectives all into the equation. Today, we take this for granted; but at the time he was writing, it was really novel."

Deacon said that Bateson realized that many metaphors that people use to talk about social and mental processes have energetic and mechanical connotations - stress, pressure - and that this led to many avoidable conclusions.

"He was one of the first people to say, 'Wait, that's a mistake. We should use 'information thinking' to talk about this,'" said Deacon. "So, he really was a critical voice for introducing information logic and systems thinking into the social sciences."

This helped transform Bateson into a leader in what in the '50s and '60s was called "cybernetics," today's complex systems science and information science.

"So, Bateson played a number of new paradigm-creating roles, mostly in the late '60s and '70s," said Deacon.

However, Bateson's ideas didn't always fare so well.

His "double bind" theory, in which he attributed schizophrenia to conflicted relationships and communications between a mother, father or siblings, a reinforcing behavior and its opposite, has largely been discredited as science has uncovered new information about biogenetics and drugs to treat the illness, said Deacon.

Bateson's father was one of the early pioneers of modern genetics, William Bateson, and the young Bateson started out in his footsteps, earning a degree in biology. But the English-born Bateson began to study anthropology on a trip to the Galapogos Islands. During fieldwork in New Guinea, he met anthropologist Margaret Mead, whom he married. In New Guinea and in Bali the pair developed a new approach to anthropological fieldwork - using motion picture film and photography to document and to analyze their participants' body language. Selections from this work will be shown at the conference.

For a while, Bateson worked as an anthropological film analyst at the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles, and taught at Harvard University and other institutions. In 1949, he joined UC San Francisco's Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute as a researcher in psychiatry and communications. His curiosity about communications even extended to non-humans, such as otters and octopuses.

Bateson taught several years at UC Santa Cruz before then Gov. Pat Brown appointed him to be a UC Regent in the 1970s. He died in 1980.

The conference will be held through Saturday (Nov. 20). For more details, go to www.batesonconference.org. Reduced rates are available for UC Berkeley students and faculty on a space-available basis.