Update: This post is a review of Kenneth Boulding’s Ecodynamics: A New Theory of Societal Evolution
Bateson’s idea that communication is a replication of structure from one person to the next is also found elsewhere. In Ecodynamics (1978), Kenneth Boulding argues that the power of human communication comes from the ability of our brains—an ability for which he uses the metaphor ‘know-how’—to replicate structure across other brains (128). Boulding finds this tendency in structures like DNA, the structure of which attracts ‘a similar structure from its material environment’ and those new entities are able ‘form themselves, as it were, into a mirror image of the original molecule’ (101). Similarly, communication works by structures in one person’s ‘head’ ‘replicating’ themselves in the head of another. Or, to avoid the complications involved in going inside heads, it is the propagation of the know-how through the various structures for which it is coded.
This explanation of communication provides a partial understanding of hypnosis. In effect, hypnosis works through the physiological repression of the various means of suppressing this propagation of the code. Bateson describes this process in a circus animal, which he feels ‘abrogate[s] the use of certain higher levels’ of thinking; he argues that it is also the means of hypnotism (369). If the higher levels of intelligence are circumvented, either through the conscious will or through suggestive or physiological means, then there is no interference to prevent the code from replicating.
This realization leads to a biological explanation for effective communication. First, the code must be able to be received without interference. Second, it must have what Boulding calls the sufficient ‘material’ means to propagate (101). In the replication of DNA, this would mean the correct molecules and nutrients; In human communication, it would be effective channels by which the code could spread. Third, the code must be correctly encoded for the material in which it wishes to move. Both Bateson and Boulding suggest that magic represents an ineffective communication of this kind. If a person can be persuaded to do something by words or actions, the practitioner of magic argues, so can nature. However, nature is not designed so as to be able to receive communicative codes and is therefore not influenced by the majority of them (typically words or ritual behavior—changing the code so that it can be received by natural bodies, however, such as fertilizing a plant or seeding a cloud, does result in effect code propagation from humans to nature).
The similarities that are seen between code propagation across persons and in biological structures like DNA prompt both Bateson and Boulding to make a connection between minds and nature. Bateson points out that the basic unit of evolution—the interconnected system—is also the unit of the mind, which is not necessarily limited by the skull. Similarly, Boulding suggests that like environments, individual minds are connected through ‘writing, sculpture, painting, photography and recordings’ into a ‘single mind’ in that each individual mind ‘participates in the experience of other minds through the intermediary of communication’ (128). This fact leads to the interesting conception of the individual not as an individual, but as a part of a larger whole. Since most theories of communication are based on the first model, appropriating the second should have interesting effects on communication theory.