Shifting From Parts to Patterns

April 4, 2017

All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

I had the pleasure of hearing my friend Nora Bateson speak last week at The Players Club in New York City where she held a reading and conversation around her recently published book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns.

If that title slows you down a bit, well, I think that’s the point. The book is a collection of essays and poems, and the conversation with Nora included personal stories of growing up in the Bateson household (Nora’s father was the pre-eminent systems scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose first marriage was to Margaret Mead. Nora’s grandfather William, was a biologist who coined the term genetics.)

Collectively, the passages in Nora’s book draw us into a state of heightened curiosity that leads us to question how we perceive reality, ultimately enabling us to better understand our world and the challenges accelerating all around us. She invites us to probe the profound difference between our now four-hundred-year-old reductionist way of thinking (which is rooted in the Scientific Revolution), and the demands and mystery of a more accurate, complex living systems view of the world. Critical to the understanding of this more accurate world view is Nora’s enigmatic assertion, itself an invitation to the most important conversation we could be having:

“The opposite of complexity is not simplicity; it is reductionism,” she mused.

In the context of our interconnected 21st century social, political, economic and ecological challenges, the critical distinction between complexity and reductionism is far from a trivial one. It is, in fact, a life or death insight.

It is precisely because these indivisible challenges are rooted in complexity that our continually applying reductionist thinking to them has led to disastrous consequences.  Overcoming them depends on our shedding our unconscious reliance on reductionist thinking and adopting a more holistic way of looking at our world.  In other words, our failure to comprehend complexity itself, in an increasingly complex, interconnected world that seems to be spiraling out of control, may well turn out to have life or death consequences for many of us, and even civilization itself as we’ve come to know it in the Modern Age.

Admittedly, reductionism – breaking down what is complicated into its component parts so they can be analyzed and understood – has made immeasurable contributions to the progress of human civilization. The laptop I’m typing on and the man on the moon are achievements made possible through the reductionist method.  But as Wes Jackson says, “there’s nothing wrong with the reductionist method so long as you don’t confuse the method with the way the world actually works.”

Holistic thinker Allan Savory once illuminated for me that complexity is profoundly different than what’s complicated.  An iPhone or an airplane is complicated.  With time and ingenuity, it can be perfected and then mass produced, the same every time.  We humans have become experts in making what’s complicated, thanks to our now well-honed expertise in reductionist reasoning and problem solving.

But complexity is a different animal altogether.  A nation is complex. A city is complex.  A business is complex.  A rainforest is complex.  War is complex.  So too a marriage, a family, and our human self – our physical body, as well as our collective body/mind/spirit.  The complexity of a living system is distinguished by the ever-changing context that surrounds it and affects it, with feedback loops and consequences impossible to fully comprehend in advance.  Our political economy, in the context of culture and place, is such a complex living system.

Bateson explains that living systems that survive over time are characterized by mutually supportive learning networks that continuously communicate and interact across multiple contexts and variables in the system.  Yet we pretend to believe we can manage complexity as we manage what’s merely complicated, with our rules and protocols, and our key performance indicators designed through reductionist logic.  In today’s America — a complex system if there ever was one — the danger is compounded by leaders who seem to think they can govern without reference to accurate information, better known as “facts,” without which trust-based communication is impossible.

Trust issues aside, our challenges run even deeper.  Bateson writes, “The education system that reaches around the globe is a mess… The violence of breaking the world into bits and never putting it back together again substantiates the kind of blindness in which we have separated ecology from economy, and psychology from politics.”  I would add another reductionist “violence”— the separation of what used to be called “political economy” into politics and economics.  From the professional silos in which business and finance, governance and the law operate today, we literally can’t “see” the patterns that define the interconnections of complexity accurately enough to have a chance to manage them in a way that the times demand.  In truth, our aim should be to constructively guide and flow with the complexity that defines modern reality, since complexity can’t really be “managed” in the sense of asserting control.  How many presidents, CEOs, or regulators, or any of “the people running the world” understand that?

Gregory Bateson famously wrote: “Break the pattern that connects and you necessarily destroy all unity.”  Yet we don’t even see the patterns, much less honor the resulting unity as the essence of our health, even our survival.  Instead, in our ignorance, we break such patterns all the time, for example, the carbon cycle, which has resulted in the climate change that we now view as a “problem” to solve.  In reality, it is the unforeseen but direct consequence of our failure to perceive, understand, and humbly work within complexity.

We humans have evolved into problem solvers using the reductionist method, a direct outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution.  It’s now baked into our DNA, limitations included.  A Second Scientific Revolution is underway, one that integrates the reductionist method with the patterns of connection that define our integral reality.  Our life depends on it.

That’s worth slowing down a bit to ponder.

  • ProsperityForRI


  • Hi John : Very nice review of Nora Bateson’s book ! I knew her father Gregory Bateson and we once did a dialogue together at the Lindisfarne Fellowship in the 1970s !

    • John Fullerton

      Hi hazel. One of the greats I missed! But his daughter Nora is her own unique gem, an artist at the core.

  • Nam Nguyen

    Wonderful article and I could not agree with you more!

    • John Fullerton

      Good to know. Need to spread the word! Thanks-

  • Mark Phillips

    Thanks for sharing this. For those like me who can’t seem to get through a book, also good is the film/documentary Nora directed on her father, An Ecology of Mind.

    • John Fullerton

      Yes excellent. We should have mentioned. Thanks mark-

  • A very close approximation to something 😉
    And I couldn’t help grinning at the reductionist explanation of the holistic approach.

    And it seems to me to be only part of the picture.

    It seems that quantum mechanics seems to be pointing to a reality that only approximates causality, and is more of a fundamental balance between order and chaos, in having probabilistic boundaries on randomness at the lowest levels. And that is at time scales of less than 10^-40 of a second. To put that sort of number in a human context, if you take the smallest time unit that a skilled human can perceive, it is about 1/100th of a second. If you take all the time that has existed in the history of our universe (some 3 times older than than this planet), then that is only 10^20 units of human time, so you have to subdivide each of those into the same number of parts again. So from the perspective of the smallest stuff we can currently measure, in terms of the smallest time units that are meaningful to that stuff, then they have lived the age of the universe squared, in the smallest time a human can perceive. So it is not surprising that their behaviour appears to very closely approximate causal behaviour, because the probability distributions of their existence are very densely populated in the smallest time we can notice.

    It seems very likely to me that we actually live in a universe that is profoundly and permanently mysterious and unpredictable at many different levels and for many different reasons (a whole ecology of reasons), and at the same time is sufficiently approximating causality at the scales of normal human existence that the difference is not detectable by our most accurate instruments to date, and thus we can develop engineering to deliver the sorts of technologies we are both using to create, transmit and read these messages, at the same time as we have free will and eternal mystery.

    And I find Jordan Peterson’s explanations of the evolutionary embodied emergence of cognition and the mythology surrounding it to be the best I have encountered to date (though of course I have a few quibbles, he appears to be the best approximation to an understanding of that problem currently generally available).

    Another key to approximating an understanding to the puzzle that is us is the role of cooperation in evolution, and the exponentially expanding role of cooperation in the higher levels of complex systems.

    And all that leads to one of the most profound of mysteries, the very notion of freedom.

    So yeah – great post; and there doesn’t appear to be any end to the journey into complexity; and no guarantees of anything either.

    I am honoured to have met you as a fellow traveler on a path without end.

  • John Fullerton

    I’m speechless! But yes, here’s to the mystery of the journey into complexity…

  • JessieHenshaw

    John, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to your talk last Thursday, as my brother was visiting. I trust it went well. What struck me in this post was the statement “Bateson explains that living systems that survive over time are characterized by mutually supportive learning networks that continuously communicate and interact across multiple contexts and variables in the system.”

    What’s striking to me is that anywhere you actually look, that complex weaving of learning networks is NOT “continuous”, but actually very intermittent. To me it reveals how progressions of relationships are built, with connections that are on and off, on and off, with every node not in continuous connection, but mostly in separation, as they make steps on their own with what they intermittently learn.

  • Doc Hall

    Good post and good review. Can we do anything about it in the business world without blowing people out of the idea that if we have reduced (reductionism of a sort) everything to a monetized model, we know everything necessary to know about a business, a proposal, or a public policy. I noted that during the rancor over ACA and ACHA, we debated, we did not dialog, and almost all the debate was about insurance plans and taxation — money and access to sick care, not about how to improve health.

    • John Fullerton

      well said. I often struggle explaining why even if we could swap out our entire energy system to renewables overnight, we would still be screwed without a fundamental change in how we understand the source of economic health (as apposed to treating one symptom of the problem). same problem!

  • Zsolt Nyiri

    Hello John, I am so glad you reflecting on Systems Thinking to your audience by mentioning Bateson’s gift to the world. All our work at the Institute for Strategy and Complexity Management (ISCM) is based on Systems Thinking and System Dynamics Modeling to solve challenges. We are deploying these think tools to compute socio-economic scenarios for Governments and communities in Africa. Hence, we cause Governments to rethink their existing policies with policy modelling solutions.

    Because Bateson’s work is core and so eminent, I take the liberty to provide your audience a practical translation of Systems Thinking for capital investments in African rural areas. Please select second video from our charity website: .
    For more information about the ‘causal overview’ model – relating to the video – one can visit the respective link and see the Interplay of Systems by clicking on the causal loop diagram (CLD). (Web link is:

    I trust this practical example brings the message across that one can visualise the cross-impact of decisions… prior to and during investments. More importantly, to demonstrate the consequences and unintended consequences of a decision over time for next generations.

    Stay in touch,

    • John Fullerton

      Thanks for this contribution Zsolt. We will review with interest… Great work!
      warm regards

  • Nora Bateson

    Hello,…. I am happy to see this discussion brewing here. And thank you John for your insights and careful thought around these ideas. Pause is so important. We don’t have time to be in a hurry right now… the transitions now at hand determine important shifts in the evolution of humanity, at least that is how I see it. Moving forward with depth and care for the larger interdependencies that generate vitality is a good start.

  • Daniel Martin

    Your words – ‘A Second Scientific Revolution is underway, one that integrates the
    reductionist method with the patterns of connection that define our
    integral reality..’ remind me of Thomas Kuhn’s little classic of the Sixties: The Theory of Scientific Revolution.

    For Kuhn this scientific revolution will happen finally when the old paradigm collapses sufficiently. The foundation of a new paradigm is already here, but on the margins because resisted by the old
    thinking/assumptions, etc. As the collapse of the old paradigm continues and more and more drift to the margins where the core of a new way is growing, a new paradigm develops and emerges. In our case today, the stakes are higher than every before for we have the capacity – as no generation before – to create more destruction and confusion.

    It is critical therefore that those on the margins develop – deepen and expand – their method which will require more than simply critiquing the old way. We need a new method that can be applied to every level of our interaction with life: a new way of interacting with each other and generating wisdom for living.

  • I’m looking forward to reading this book. I already agree largely with its premise as described in the article.
    My work is in the area of human thought, behavior, actions, relationship, mental health, motivation, etc.
    I rejected many of the “labels” typically used to in that arena, for example, the DSM because they reduce the symptoms to a single label that diminishes clarity.
    In my work I find that nearly everything I talk about exists along a continuum and that when things are explained using a continuum there is greater clarity about what is necessary to get improvements. Things that those using a completely reductionist method think are hard are simple using a continuum.
    Some of my work also involves feedback loops so I was delighted to see that. Emotions have recently been re-defined as a feedback loop between thoughts and our self-actualized self. I’ve been applying that perspective of emotions in my life for a decade and teaching others to do it for almost that long. In every case life improves and seems easier.
    This is absolutely on the right track. I like that.