Form, Substance and Difference* Gregory Bateson (1970)

Source: Form, Substance and Difference*


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In his book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson developed his idea of a “difference that makes a difference” in his talk to Alfred Korzybski’s Institute of General Semantics. The talk was entitled “Form, Substance, and Difference.” Form and substance referred to the famous Korzybski maxim “the map is not the territory.”


via Daniel Christian Wahl on Facebook, who posted

Rereading some Gregory Bateson, one of his last talks entitled ‘Form, Substance and Difference’ (1970), published in ‘Steps to an Ecology of Mind’ (1972):

“Let us start from the evolutionary side. It is now empirically clear that Darwinian evolutionary theory contained a very great error in its identification of the unit of survival under natural selection. The unit which was believed to be crucial and around which the theory was set up was either the breeding individual or the family line or the subspecies or some similar homogeneous set of conspecifics. Now I suggest that the last hundred years have demonstrated empirically that if an organism or aggregate of organisms sets to work with a focus on its own survival and thinks that is the way to select its adaptive moves, its “progress” ends up with a destroyed environment. If the organism ends up destroying its environment, it has in fact destroyed itself. And we may very easily see this process carried to its ultimate reductio ad absurdum in the next twenty years. The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line, or the society.

… The flexible environment must also be included along with the flexible organism because, as I have already said, the organism which destroys its environment destroys itself. The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.”

“And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.

If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.

If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in. If we continue to operate on the premises that were fashionable in the prescybernetic era, and which were especially underlined and strengthened during the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to validate the Darwinian unit of survival, we may have twenty or thirty years before the logical reductio ad absurdum of our old positions destroy us.”

“And last, there is death. It is understandable that, in a civilization which separates mind from body, we should either try to forget death or to make mythologies about the survival of transcendent mind. But if mind is immanent not only in those pathways of information which are located inside the body but also in external pathways, then death takes on a different aspect. The individual nexus of pathways which I call “me” is no longer so precious because that nexus is only part of a larger mind.”


… some lines to ponder!