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An introduction to "The role of somatic change in evolution"




In the article reprinted here Bateson studies ‘evolution’ from the perspective of three factors: (i) fundamental (genotype) structural change, (ii) adaptation (somatic) response to environment/circumstances, and (iii) environmental change. He asserts that evolution is a matter of the interrelationships between these three factors in the perspective of natural selection. Bateson argues that adaptation is more surface-level and reversible than is structural change. But the economics of flexibility reveal that we can only do so much adapting before its possibilities and resources are exhausted. In principle, adaptation costs much more energy/effort than does mutation. Change must not be analyzed in isolation—the ‘pre-giraffe’ may have a longer neck (better to drink with), but its heart would be stressed and under pressure.

All change operates via complex interrelationships. Change is never local; it is always interlocked into complex fields of relatedness. Bateson stresses that ‘fast change’ is not a good thing. Control or identity and continuity lag behind what is controlled. In ‘fast change’, control will fail and the pressures on the organism will escalate. Too much flexibility or change on the individual level will destroy variability or the diversity of population. Individuals will be stressed to meet immediate life-threatening challenges leaving little or no room for serendipity or eccentricity. In a society that celebrates flexibility, it is important to understand Bateson’s paradox. The more flexibility there is, the less real (new) difference the system can support.

Bateson rounds off his analysis with a comparison between ‘regulators’, ‘adjustors’ and ‘extraregulators’. Adjustors let the environmental variables enter into the organism and the organism must then cope with the results. Regulators negotiate their relationships with their environment at their boundaries (such as at the skin) and keep their internal housekeeping (relatively) stable. According to Bateson the evolutionary trend seems to be towards ‘extraregulators’ who project their control mechanisms into their environment. Thus organizations and cultures are means of ‘controlling’ the self/environment relationship in the environment.

Bateson’s concepts call up some very challenging questions. Is the current emphasis on ‘flexibility’ in organizations an evolutionary regression to ‘adjustment’ that weakens ‘regulation’ and endangers ‘extraregulation’? If so, does this pose a fundamental danger to society and economy? Research, analysis and debate into the organization (organism)/environment relationship inspired by Bateson is important, challenging and innovative. Because of his communications/interactive/coevolving perspective, complexity studies is the right place for it to happen.


Originally published as Bateson, G. (1963). “The role of somatic change in evolution,” Evolution, 17: 529-539. Reprinted with kind permission.

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