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To Think as Nature Thinks

Optimizing Connectivity: Envisioning the University as a Complex Living System

Connectivity must become the first principle of our higher education universe.

IN HIS SEMINAL WORK Steps to an Ecology of Mind, anthropologist, social scientist, and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson (1972) laid the groundwork for a new and broader understanding of mental process and in years to come would urge us all to learn to think as Nature thinks. To Bateson, Mind was a powerful descriptive of the all-encompassing mechanics of Nature, organizations, and human systems too. As one of the founders, together with Warren McCulloch, Norbert Wiener, and others, of cybernetics and systems thinking, Bateson saw mind and connectivity where others saw only sprawling diversity and disconnects. His insights shaped a generation of countercultural thinkers and pioneers of what today we call the science of complex living systems.

In his second groundbreaking volume Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, Bateson (1979, cover) laid out his prescription even more clearly: “Insofar as we are a mental process, to that same extent we must expect the natural world to show similar characteristics of mentality.” Biological evolution is a mental process. Conversely, our own conscious experience is a “selectional” process (Edelman 2006)—indeed, one of glorious complexity and staggering connectivity. We are creatures of this connectivity. We are connected to every life form on the planet, and our own mentality springs from the selectional processes of the billions of synaptic interconnections of our very own neural ecologies. Ecologies within us, around us, everywhere. To think as Nature thinks is, therefore, to think about “the pattern which connects” us to everything at every level. The pattern which “connects the crab to the lobster and the orchid to the primrose and all four of them to me…. And me to you,” as Bateson (1979, p. 8) was fond of saying.

And yet it is this question of connectivity that seems to have confounded us as educators for centuries. We’ve been experts at describing and defining at great length what a thing is and what it appears to be doing on its own, but have managed somehow and too often to avoid its place and function as a part of something larger. Our life sciences and ecological investigations have gradually overturned this perspective as simply poor science. Yet far too many of our great institutions still operate as collectives of silos and fiercely defended fiefdoms with meager connectivity among their constituent parts.

This is one of the principal challenges to institutions of higher education today.


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