EDGE 67 — April 23, 2000

(3,464 words)


Patrick Bateson

A Talk With Patrick Bateson

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.


A Talk With Patrick Bateson

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.

Click here for Patrick Bateson's Bio page.

JB: You seem to always have a lot on your plate. What are your main activities now?

BATESON: I am currently doing four things. I am head of King's College, a Cambridge College with a wonderful choir and world famous chapel which requires constant attention and fund raising efforts on my part. I'm a professor at Cambridge University and still ply my trade in the study of behavior. I'm the Biological Secretary of the Royal Society, which requires me to look after the biological side of Britain's major scientific academy and its research side which employs 17 research professors and 350 research fellows.

Finally, I am doing some work for Lord Burns who is running a Government inquiry into hunting with dogs. We have been having a big debate about hunting in the UK. The government asked Lord Burns, a retired civil servant who had been the head of the Treasury in Britain, to bring some sanity into the debate. I did the report on the welfare aspects of hunting deer with hounds. There will be a seminar about this when I get home and it is very much at the top of my mind.

JB: How does this relate to your work?

BATESON: Since I study animals in my own work, I've been interested in some of the ethical issues involved in the use of animals in research as well as those involved in hunting. So often these debates become intractable. You get two groups implacably opposed to each other, and they simply don't see any point of intersection between what they believe and what their opponents believe: either you're with us or you're against us. Both debates have been like that. My sense about the use of animals in research is that the welfare and the science issues are at right angles to each other. It's possible to treat animals well and also do good science. We are not necessarily treating animals badly because we are working with them. Indeed, in behavioral work it would be counter-productive to treat them badly. When I first got into the stag-hunting debate, I thought that it might be possible to preserve some of the traditions of hunting while minimizing the suffering.

JB: It seems as if the animal people hate some humans more than they love some animals.

BATESON: I believe that is right. Some of my scientific colleagues and their families have been subject by activists to a level of stress that would be regarded as intolerable if inflicted on animals.

JB: Why do you think people imbue certain animal species with a kind of human consciousness - that has the same kind of emotional feelings that humans have?

BATESON: Sometimes for good reasons. Some of the processes that underlie pain, sensation and coping with environmental challenges are very conservative in evolutionary terms, and although our cognitive abilities must have increased enormously over the last two million years, other aspects of our behavior are probably very much the same as those of other animals. Of course, I could say to you that I only know about my own awareness, and I shall never have access to your awareness or your capacity to suffer. But that kind of solipsism would be rather foolish. It would be more appropriate to ask what aspects of your behavior and what aspects of the design of your body suggest to me that you are like me? If I specify the criteria that lead me to such an inference, I can apply them to other animals. People do that intuitively. They do other less reasonable things, of course; they project their feelings into teddy bears and other inanimate things. But sometimes it is rational to treat animals as though they had some human properties.

JB: I know you've been concerned with how animals and humans become what they are and how their behavior develops, and that's been the basis of a lot of your research. You seem to be able to describe in understandable language processes which many people find very complicated.

BATESON: Some people see the process of growth and development as very simple. They seem to think it is read out of the genes, and that when the human genome project is completed we shall have the Book of Life, which will give us a complete an understanding of all human nature. 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.

JB: How do you understand them?

BATESON: As a start, we need to pinpoint regularities. For instance, what are the particular events that influence individuals at a particular stage in development with long-term effects on their behavior. An example is the way in which human sexual preferences can be influenced by experience starting early in life. If we grow up with a particular member of the opposite sex, we are not interested sexually in that person when we grow up. We are interested in somebody who is a little bit different from him or her but not too different. I've just come back from a conference in Stanford where we were discussing the work of Arthur Wolf who is an anthropologist. Wolf has done a long-term study of Taiwanese marriage systems during a period in history when the Japanese ruled Taiwan and kept very detailed records of each household. There were two kinds of arranged marriage. In the most common type the wife-to-be and the husband-to-be met when they were adolescents. These marriages led to stable, long-term relationships and many children.

In the other type of arranged marriage, the wife-to-be and the husband-to-be met when they themselves were children. The future daughter-in-law was adopted into the family of the husband, and the children were adolescents when the marriage was made formal. What emerges from analyzing the Japanese records is that these marriages were remarkably unsuccessful with few children and high divorce rates. When Wolf was able to talk to some of the people who had experienced these marriages, they simply said that they found their partners very uninteresting.

What is particularly nice about his study is that he was able to get information on ages when the wife-to-be met the husband-to-be. Up to the age of about five, the subsequent marriages were severely affected. After the age of five, the subsequent marriages were just as successful as other arranged marriages. So something happens in those early years which has a long term influence on sexual preferences. It is not necessarily determined rigidly in the nervous system. The process may be much more dynamic and may have much to do with the relationship which the future marriage partners have through the rest of their childhood. If they meet very early, they play with each other more as they develop and may have a close relationship which continues right the way through until they are adolescents. Whatever the mediating chain of events, this study provides a remarkable example of where a natural experiment with a human population has produced evidence which is very similar to the results of laboratory experiments with animals.

JB: So we're not talking about hard-wiring here?

BATESON: No, we're not talking about hard-wiring, but what we could be talking about is experience which impinges on the child in a particular stage in development, and which may have long-lasting effects, because it's mediated through the subsequent relationships experienced by the child. In terms of biological function, however, the process is well-regulated and leads to the typical outcome that siblings are not sexually interested in each other. That is good design.

JB: How do you feel about the nature-nurture debate? How do the various influences on development work together.

BATESON: First of all, I dislike the opposition of nature and nurture, implying that there are two set processes that independently affect the development of behavior. I am skeptical about the attempt to try to partition the adult behavioral characteristics into those things which might be due to genetic variance and those things which might be due to environmental variance. Also I think it distracts from attention to the interplay between developing individuals and their environments. In Design For a Life, Paul Martin and I use the metaphor of cooking to make the point that if you have a large number of cakes, to say that 50% of the differences between these cakes is due to the ingredients and 50% is due to the way in which they're cooked is not likely to make any sense. We all understand that cooking is chemistry and has many surprising outcomes. We now need to understand that development is chemistry and the end-product cannot simply be reduced to its ingredients.

A quite different point is this. When we think about development, it is very easy to suppose that what we see in the young is all part of assembling an adult. But individuals must survive to become adults and they have to deal with habitats which they will never experience again. For the child in the womb, that ecology is totally different from what happens afterwards. Later, when the child is taking milk from its mother and is dependent on her, its environment is quite different from what it will encounter at the next stage. And so on, all through life. This makes the point that many aspects of juvenile behavior are not part of the process of assembly, but are part of what is necessary to survive through a particular stage.

JB: Opportunistic development? Seizing the moment?

BATESON: No, that is a different matter. The young are like caterpillars. They have to cope with the problems of that particular stage in life and these may be very different from being an adult butterfly.

JB: Are you endorsing spending a lot of time and attention to pre-school age children?

BATESON: Now that is a matter of seizing the moment. One of the things we emphasize in our book is the importance of play. Children, like all young mammals, actively do things that don't seem to make a great deal of sense at the time - playing pointlessly. You don't need to pay them to do it. They do it spontaneously. As biologists, we reckon that this activity serves many useful functions, equipping the individual with skills and an understanding of the social and physical world that it will use later on. I'm concerned about the tendencies in modern pre-school education that seem to ignore these benefits. In trying to force children to acquire skills prematurely by making them sit behind a desk when they really want to play, we are in danger of laying up trouble for their futures. First of all they get frustrated. They become alienated from their teachers, and that sets up a chain of events that may mean that later on in their life they'll never make it in school. Evidence from programs like High Scope suggests that an authoritarian approach to pre-school education thwarts children and, on the other side, an excessively permissive education leads to loss of direction. In those programs in which the children are encouraged to play, but the teacher helps them to plan what they're going to do, they establish a good relationship with the teacher. When compared with 3-4 year old kids who were prematurely sat behind a desk and were just told to get on with practicing their letters, these kids treated authoritatively but with sensitivity end up being highly socialized; they're likely to be in jobs when they're 20 and they are more likely to have stable personal relationships. A whole series of measurements indicate that they're well-adjusted people who are not alienated from society. If they have had an authoritarian regime at the pre-school stage, they are likely to play truant and drop out later on. As a consequence, they are likely to be without of a job when they leave school, and they are likely to have bad adult relationships.

JB: Are you coming down on the side of authoritative, as opposed to authoritarian?


JB: In either case, you're not sounding like Dr. Spock.

BATESON: Even Spock became a strong advocate of authoritative approach to parenting. And the permissive approach can lead to a lot of trouble as well as the authoritarian. The child doesn't know where it's going.

JB: You talk about resilience in animals and in children.

BATESON: Quite properly we worry about deprivation and maltreatment in early life because such experiences can lead to all sorts of social problems. At the same time, when we look at the human population as a whole, a lot of people who have bad experiences early in life end up all right. These people tend to be outgoing and tend bright. The point is, though, that bad experiences don't always lead to bad outcomes. When we look at the biology of development, one of the striking things about it is the remarkable capacity of the individual to get back on track. After you have been ill and stopped growing, you may bounce right back to where you would have been without illness. A lot of that kind of resilience, and a lot of the capacity to get to the same end point by different routes, seem to be very much a characteristic of development, and something that is part of good design.

JB: Where do you stand regarding the notion of free will versus determinism.

BATESON: A current debate is whether speculation about the evolution of human behavior affects our attitude to the responsibility we have for own actions. Some people claim, for example that rape is an alternative male strategy for increasing reproductive success. If they are right, does it follow that rapists had no option and we should not condemn their behavior? Similarly, as we discover more about the way the brain works, we may come to believe that all behavior is pre-programmed. There is nothing we can do about it and are stuck with the way we are wired up. It seems to follow that, therefore, the notion of responsibility disappears. This is baloney.

Whatever else might be believed about the evolution of human behavior, a major change was likely to have been the expansion of our capacity for planning. We are able to consider alternative actions without moving a muscle. That characteristic is so important in making decisions that it is bound to affect the way we weigh up different courses of action. Since most humans are capable of planning, they weigh up the consequences of what they might do. This is the basis for criminal law. We should not introduce a plea of diminished responsibility as soon as somebody does something which is claimed to be "natural". We should recognize that if the person has a capacity to make decisions about alternative courses of action, they can consider the consequences. They will not do certain things which others regard as repellent because they know that if they do, they may get clobbered. The onus of proof must lie with those who believe in diminished responsibility. The starting position in a rape case should be that most rapists know that if they are caught they will be put in prison. In my view, an understanding of the biology of behavior reinstates free will, it does not take it away.

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