The Third Culture

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Edge 67

A Talk With Patrick Bateson [4.23.00]

Some people see the process of growth and development as very simple. They seem to think it is something that is read out of the genes, and that when the human genome project is completed we shall have the book of life, including an understanding of all human behavior. Others take the view that the developmental process is so immensely complicated that we shall never understand it properly. I take the view that although on the surface developmental processes may look complicated, the underlying rules are analogous to those that underlie a game like chess. The rules of chess are simple, but the games that can be generated by those rules are enormously complex. What we have to do as scientists is try to understand rules that produce a design for a life.

Introduction by
John Brockman

When he was about 14, Patrick Bateson went to a bird observatory where enthusiasts assembled to look at migrating birds. "I met a man who asked me what I was going to do at university. I said 'I'm going to be a biologist'. He then asked me what I was going to do after that. I wasn't quite sure and he asked me whether I had thought of doing a PhD. I didn't know what PhD meant. So he explained and it sounded like heaven. I could go on playing at things I loved doing after I got my first degree."

At Cambridge Bateson read Zoology and met Robert Hinde, who was a lecturer in the Zoology Department at that time. "I thought he was one of the cleverest men I had ever encountered and I wanted to do research under him", he says. In due course, he stayed on to work on behavioral imprinting in birds which then got him interested in the development of behavior. That was how he was drawn into lab-based work rather than the field ornithology which he had originally looked forward to doing.

After getting his PhD at Cambridge in 1963, he went to Stanford for a couple of years. "I went there to work with a fascinating man called Karl Pribram who had started out as a neuro-surgeon and then became one of the most imaginative neuro-psychologists of his time." When he returned to Cambridge, he was interested in tying together the ideas that he'd got from Pribram with his continuing interests in the development of behavior. By this time he was a research fellow of King's College. "At dinner one night in Kings, I happened to be sitting next to Gabriel Horn. He was a neuro-physiologist working on the neural mechanisms of attention and habituation. He was getting increasingly interested in more complicated learning processes. We discovered that we had similar interests, but approached the matter from very different angles. We liked the way each other thought and started experimental work together. The collaboration and friendship has continued to this day."

A couple of years later Bateson and Horn started to collaborate with Steven Rose, who was one of the first biochemists to become seriously interested in learning and memory. The three of them worked together until the mid-'70s, "but once again," Bateson notes, "the collaboration developed into life-long friendship."

— JB

PATRICK BATESON is Professor of Ethology (the biological study of behaviour) at Cambridge University, The Provost of King's College Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Biological Secretary of the Royal Society. He received a BA in Zoology and a PhD in Animal Behaviour from Cambridge University, held a Harkness Fellowship at Stanford University, and was Director of the Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour at Cambridge for ten years. He is the coauthor with Paul Martin (a researcher in behavioral biology, and a former student of Bateson) of Design for a Life: How Behavior Develops and Measuring Behavior. He has edited or co-edited several books, including Mate Choice, The Development and Integration of Behavior, Behavioral Mechanisms in Evolutionary Perspective, and the series Perspectives in Ethology.

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