This page is a sub-page of our page on Entropy.



Other relevant sources of information:

• A legacy for living systems, Gregory Bateson as Precursor to Biosemiotics, Springer, 2008.
Semiotic Engineering
Algebraic Semiotics, by Joseph Goguen


A difference that makes a difference:

A difference that makes a difference


Bioentropy, Aesthetics and Meta-dualism: The Transdisciplinary Ecology of Gregory Bateson, by Peter Harries-Jones, Entropy, 26 Nov 2010.


Bateson’s perspective of “a difference that makes a difference”:

Harries-Jones, 2010, (p. 2360):

Bateson believed that while ‘noise eating’ had its place, noise eating existed along with ‘noise sensitivity’ and ‘noise generation’. Thus increased ‘time binding’, or conservation of time, brought with it the counter-intuitive idea that an increase in differentiation can bring increase in order. But often increased differentiation, or variety, when it first appears, has similarities to, or cannot clearly be distinguished from ‘noise’ [5]. The latter is particularly interesting since, in the biological world, playfulness creates new adaptations from noise responses — a selection process of response to response. In his reinterpretation of cybernetics, he envisaged noise as playful and creative and which could become looped back into a system of communication as part of the creation of new patterns. […]

Bateson eventually abandoned Wiener’s metaphor ‘negentropy’ as ‘order from chaos’, and introduced his own concept of ‘bioentropy’ — pattern from noise, the ‘noise’ of differentiation. Bateson’s final reformulation of information as “a difference that made a difference” explicitly defined information as meaningful to a somebody or some organism that could perceive difference and interpret its perceptual significance. It was this inclusion of meaning or semiotic looping within cybernetics that he believed made it possible to transform technical cybernetics into the fundament of a new epistemology.


[p. 2367]: McCulloch was another prominent member of the foundational group in cybernetics. He had produced evidence to show that there were several types of circular paths or dromes that travel through nervous nets and that long term and short term memory is associated with these characteristic circular paths [19]. He argued that the dominant form of communication in nervous nets, its topological form, does not emanate from a single, controlling top-down hierarchical order in our brain. There was not a grand homeobox in the nervous system which replicated command and control found in political, bureaucratic, military and entrepreneurial organizations. Instead, meaning emerges in a completely different manner, largely through our understanding of oscillating contexts both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ in what was generally regarded at that time as both ‘brain’ and ‘mind’. McCulloch suggests that the formal components from which meaning is drawn are heterarchical, i.e., drawn from several domains within a plural chain of selections that render them meaningful in a context.

Bateson added to this that heterarchical patterning itself is an embodiment of our ways of thinking and acting in an interactive setting. From this revision in the topology of how a message is believed to be ‘carried’ in a circuit, Bateson is able to elaborate upon patterns of how what we learn is coupled to our assumptions of how we learn, and, in turn, drawn recursively into our own epistemology. Second order embodiment of communication leads on to third order embodiment with each level of context expressing a pattern of heterarchical preferences which in turn require a meta-context. […]

Bateson believed that as a result of McCulloch’s work, most behavioural principles based on the notion of continuous implication would have to be revised. So, too, would that part of psychoanalysis which assumed that consciousness provided a continuity between the representation of the ‘real world’ outside individuals’ bodies and the ‘world’ inside their heads. McCulloch and others had struck at the central dogma of Western science. By showing that the brain is not a separate centre of the body, but embraces ideas, feelings, memory, and aesthetics, he had totally reformulated body-mind dualism:

‘A queer business’, Bateson wrote in one of his early letters to McCulloch, ‘how the world which previously contained elements of coherence becomes again a jigsaw puzzle when a new theoretical approach is devised, and then one has to go around picking up the pieces all over again’ [23].

Bateson proposed that the concept of “fit” is a low-level analogue for “matching flexibility”. Survival depends on those who best manage to retain flexible interactive strategies among the dilemmas that environment always poses. Bioentropy is thus a reflexive source of adaptation for operational conditions of living. At the same time, there is a finite amount of potential changes which the body is capable of achieving, and that whenever the body is achieving some one adaptive change, its ability to achieve any subsequent change is thereby reduced. Thus its flexibility is reduced. Species can get into trouble when stress creates contradictory demands upon some variable in total physiology. Such a double contradiction—the demand that the variable be increased to meet stress A and simultaneously decreased so that stress B may be also be met — especially if the two stresses occur at different levels of overall organization [33].


[p. 2376]: “In biological evolution, adaptive changes occur during the lifetime of an individual (i.e., phenotype), adjusting him or her to various forms of stress, efforts, demands placed upon skill and the like. What is consumed is (bio)entropy i.e., uncommitted possibilities for change in many different physiological and neural variables and parameters. The uncommitted alternatives ((bio)entropy) are lost, eaten up by commitment and by becoming unchangeable parts of patterns. Adaptive changes limit the possibility for future adaptation in other directions.”

Some biologists have taken Bateson to mean that he is supporting Jean-Baptiste Lamarck against Darwin, by supporting Lamarck’s hypothesis that experience, performance and use of bodily parts, such as the giraffe using its neck to gain access to higher standing leaves on acacia trees, results in the long neck of the giraffe. Lamarck proposed that the flexibilities engendered through use of bodily parts are transmitted from parents to their young within a generation. Bateson did not support this idea at all. It was one thing to say that short term adjustments continually lock or restrict system performance yet if response to a stressed out system is subsequently inherited, as Lamarck proposed, then all Lamarckian heredity would do is to enforce ever increasing rigidity as it attempts to correct genetically the immediate errors in a parental generation. Such a result, over genetic time, would be a total loss of ability to adapt.

The real point worth supporting in Lamarck, Bateson says, is quite different to that ascribed to him. Lamarck recognizes that our bodies have perception and through perception, apperception or minimal intelligence. What we might observe from Lamarck’s considerations is that our body is made up of a very large number of variables, which interlock in all sorts of spirals and loops, so that if organisms starts locking themselves into any one circuit of repetitive activity, the chances are increased that one spiral of tightening will ipso facto tighten the others. The individual can end up with no tolerance or flexibility anywhere (i.e., “stressed out”).

Ecological systems were systems which embodied meaning and hence the dilemmas that meaning always brings along with it. Bateson observed that all species will eventually run into conditions of contradiction arising not only from unsuccessful phenotypic adaptation but, paradoxically, from successful systemic adaptation as well. In systemic terms, successful adaptation at one time might not be appropriate strategy to continue with at a subsequent time. The longer an adaptive characteristic continues to have positive survival value, the more this characteristic becomes entrenched in the organization of the creature, and the creature becomes less able to engage in evolutionary novelty. As he was fond of saying: adaptation and addiction are very closely related phenomena [34].

“Nature plays upon the well-adapted organism. For many generations she has let this organism act on the assumption that some of her (Nature) could be relied upon. The organism has been led up the garden path until it has incorporated into its deeper structure those factors, which produced the adaptation… Nature encourages the organism to rely upon her and then shifts her tactics and says (you relied on me too much)…, a condition for evolutionary creativity.”

Dilemmas of relationship also arise. Whenever ecological change brings dilemmas of relations, then these dilemmas about survival never remain simple dilemmas. Being second order dilemmas — or a dilemma inside a dilemma, nested dilemmas — they become dilemmas at one systemic level which cannot be resolved because of an unresolved dilemma at another level of the system which acts as “context” for the dilemma in question.


[p. 2378]: It was not until 1969 that Bateson himself had fully understood the path he had taken. His resolution went approximately like this: the initial problem he had worked on at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Palo Alto was how cybernetic signal events triggered meaning. Information sent and received in classical cybernetics was almost always as a physical signal in a circuit, such as instructions for technical machines, or as ‘news’ in a spoken or visual interaction between two people in human communication. These cybernetic events were enfolded in time series in a channel, the time series was ‘error activated’ so corrective action is brought about by the difference between some present state and some preferred state. In these situations, the technical term ‘information’ may be succinctly defined not only by feedback but by any difference which makes a difference in some prior event. This definition is fundamental for all analysis of information in cybernetic systems and organization.

Now, if information is considered as variety, as in Ashby’s definition of information, and if the information event is some type of selection of form in variety, then there is a second order level of apprehension of messages, and a second-order level of intelligence typically is exhibited in animal communication. At second order level, the ‘form’ of the form is ‘triggered by difference’. An information event at second order level not merely triggers error correction in a circuit, but through a form interacting with form (and not necessarily a linguistic form) generates a pattern of contrast or comparison, which embodies a difference, much as in any other type of communication. This difference indicates what the signal, or message is ‘about’. Dealing with information at second order level, as the form of a form triggered by difference, yields a much wider concept than information in a feedback channel. It indicates that information, considered as ‘difference’, could emerge from the most simple acts of selection or comparison in any context of natural order [35].

“…, so long as we talk about difference do not pretend that difference is somehow ‘physical’… difference is neither in the outside world, nor solely in the inside world but is created by an act of comparison and this act is an event in time — an act of scanning. Whether there are static differences ‘out there’ it is not so important for us as psychologists as the generalizing that only changes can enter into our perception. (And) that any difference which makes a difference is ‘information’ (there may be other differences, but these do not concern us as psychologists).”

And again [36]: “only news of a difference can enter into man’s sense organs, his mapping, into his mind. Only difference can effect and trigger an end organ — so all our information (our universe of perception) is built on differences. Difference is ‘super-natural’ i.e., outside the natural world as this is seen by the hard sciences. Difference is not located in x or y or in any space between.”

If we consider Logical Typing as his preliminary method for discerning difference, his ‘new way’ he developed during the 1970s of dealing with information as the form of a form ‘triggered’ by difference gave an enormous flexibility to his whole construct. Bateson could now argue that ‘message’ or ‘news’ need not be tied to a specific circuit of senders and receivers. The triggering of ‘difference’ could occur in any information context through the simple means of comparison and contrast. These could include any means through which a process of perceiving difference occurred in animal interactions or, beyond this, to organisms in the natural world. In short, information is the difference that makes a difference, and learning provides a framework of enquiry that is by no means exclusive to the human world but pervasive in the ecological world as well.

He could begin to think about contrasts in any form in nature, even how pattern is derived from contrasts and interconnection in morphology. The supposed mystery of patterning of form in nature adapting to its environment could now be seen to be the embodiment of difference in patterns of relationship of organism and its environment; and in these embodied patterns living forms recursively created their own organization.


Leave a Reply