A double bind in collective learning

A double bind has vexed collective learning in evolution: collective learners tend to learn well when they are diverse and to destroy diversity in their learning. In this draft essay, I provide background about double binds, evidence for this one, and recommendations for working with it.

Double binds

In the mid-20th century, social scientist Gregory Bateson proposed double binds as the root cause of symptoms classified as schizophrenia in World War II veterans. In this hypothesis, conflicting commands imposed on someone who cannot easily contest the orders place that person in potentially destructive stress, especially if that person first received such confusing communication as a child.

Bateson illustrates a perfect double bind—an inescapable one—with Lewis Carol's "bread-and-butter-fly." That imaginary animal has a head made of sugar, drinks weak tea as its only food, and "always" dies, whether it finds that food or not. Its head melts or it starves. The phrase “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t” applies. Bateson emphasized that transcending a situation like this requires creativity—and that organisms do it all the time. He believed that a double bind could spur illness or health.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, discovered nearly 20 years later, better matched the soldiers’ primary challenges. However, double binds became useful in understanding aspects of law, zen koans, and therapy. Bateson ultimately proposed that the concept would apply in evolutionary biology. This last proposal has, so far, not gained strong acceptance.

In collective learning

In 2022, I noticed a particular double bind after rereading David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History and viewing Nora Bateson’s documentary, An Ecology of Mind, which introduced me to Gregory’s concept of double binds. Christian’s account of evolution offered vast support for a dilemma between collective learners and diversity. Humans, a species that demonstrates a high capacity for collective learning, rather resemble the tragic bread-and-butter-fly.

This double bind briefly describes the process of multilevel selection in evolution. Biologist David Sloan Wilson often compares that process to “a perverse alchemist who turns gold into lead.” In multilevel selection, traits that function as virtues at one level of organization regularly become vices at another. For example, strong family bonds become nepotism in the wider social community. In many cases, conformity and dominance destroy diversity along the way. Diversity and collaboration, two markers of resilience, seem elusive to maintain simultaneously. Thriving often requires creativity to maintain integrity across multiple scales. Evolutionary history includes many instances of the double bind and transcendence of it.

Working with the double bind

I’m looking for hazards in this idea. I haven’t yet found any. If you notice any, please email me. Absent hazards, I encourage utilizing this double bind as a heuristic. Noticing a double bind sometimes facilitates transcending it.

So far, this concept seems readily understandable and usable. Cognitive scientists, biologists, political analysts, system theorists, and programmers have easily recognized the pattern in their lives and considered ways they might work around it.

Overall, I hope that this idea serves as a tool for thriving on multiple scales, including the planetary. I plan to expand this essay and publish it somewhere more accessible than my portfolio.