Patrick Bateson interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 13th December 2007

0:09:07 Born in 1938 on the Chiltern Hills; father designed the house where I was born; had a brother five years older; William Bateson, the biologist, was a cousin of my grandfather; he coined the term 'genetics'; he had been working on inheritance for a long time and then Mendel's book became available and he suddenly realized how important his work was and became a champion of Mendel; although I never knew him he was a figure in the family; he was Professor of Biology in Cambridge for a while and then became Director of the John Innes Institute which was in London at the time; he was prolific and got the whole subject of genetics going; fiercely opposed by group of biometricians; he was to some extent a role model for me; remember being fascinated by natural history lessons as a small boy;  the local school had a very good teacher called Mrs Truscott; had a number of people in our house during the war as mother was Norwegian and as a result had Norwegian refugees, including Karen Spärck Jones; had a very happy childhood

5:59:07 Mother was extraordinarily vivacious and everybody loved her; I hardly knew my father who was wounded and captured at Dunkirk; I used to write to him in the Prisoner of War camp; he was not very well when he came back after the war and only lived for another ten years; he had been an expert in timber drying before the war and during the war took a degree in architecture in the Prisoner of War camp; he had great charm; he had a brother, F.W. Bateson, who was a don at Oxford, an English literary critic; Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist, was a son of William Bateson; I did not meet him until I was a graduate student; I was taken to a conference in U.S. by Robert Hinde as his student and through an error Gregory was also invited; he was astonishingly like my father even though they were second cousins; we still don't understand why these likenesses occur even though the genetic relationship is not very great; he was a powerful, curiously inarticulate man though a coiner of terms; had a cult following in California though think his book 'Steps to an Ecology of Mind' is a dreadful book; I did meet Margaret Mead at a conference who flirted with me as a seemingly younger version of Gregory

13:11:10 After my first school I went to a Prep school in Sussex for five years; I didn't like being sent off as a boarder at eight and to begin with was unhappy; eventually settled down and had a happy time; from there went to Westminster, initially as a day boy as my parents were living with William Bateson's brother in Chelsea, looking after him; became a weekly boarder in my second year; initially I didn't do too well but rose steadily up and by the end was in top sets and had started to do biology, which I loved; also rowing and spent two years in the first eight; hard training and chemistry master was furious at time lost; there was a status advantage in sport that gave me confidence; at fourteen had started going to a bird observatory on the Northumberland coast in my holidays where we caught birds and ringed them to study their migration; we had a neighbour on the Chilterns called Richard Fitter who was a well-known naturalist who had suggested I go there; I had already made up my mind that I wanted to do zoology and wanted to go to Cambridge; there met a schoolmaster who described doing a Ph.D. which sounded like heaven

19:33:06 At school had a very good biology master who had also taught Andrew Huxley; I read 'Apes, Angels and Victorians'  which I looked at again recently and it is a very good biography of both Darwin and Huxley; reading it at school was the first time I realized how important Darwin was; Westminster had a liberated feel about it; the then headmaster, Walter Hamilton, used to run an essay society which I wrote for and was very helpful in learning to write well; made some good intellectual contacts there, some of which have persisted; I played the cello though not very well

24:06:18 Came to Cambridge for the scholarship exam; should mention that uncle Ned Bateson had been at King's and keen that I come here; earlier he had take me to see Cambridge and he wanted to take me to his father's house (father had been Master of St John's) to show me a little chestnut he had planted; found an enormous chestnut tree had grown; failed to get a scholarship at that point but got a place at King's in December 1955 and then went to Norway; had a wonderful grandfather who had been Chief Justice when the Germans invaded; the King and Government left but because he stayed he became officially the Government of Norway; he went undercover and ran the resistance; he was never caught by the Nazis and became a hero after the war; I went to live with him and he got me a place in the Natural History Museum in Oslo where I worked every day, learning systematics and how to skin birds; when summer came he introduced me to the Norsk Polarinstitut where I got a place as a deckhand doing hydrographical work and went on an expedition to the north of Spitsbergen where I had masses of time for bird watching; came back and started at King's in October 1957; that winter I went to a conference organised by David Lack at St Hugh's Oxford for undergraduates; he started as a schoolmaster but then wrote a famous book on the life of a robin and then got a place at Oxford; Niko Tinbergen gave a talk about gulls; I met a fellow Cambridge undergraduate called Chris Plowright who had been to Spitsbergen as a geologist; he was also an ornithologist and we wanted to go there to look at the Ivory Gull; talked to Tinbergen who was very enthusiastic as nothing was know about it; a student of his, Esther Cullen, had just published a brilliant paper on the adaptations of the kittiwake, a cliff-nesting gull, and he was very keen that other cliff-nesting gulls should be looked at; Tinbergen had spent a year in Greenland as a young man and was very keen to go back to the Arctic; the plan was that he should lead this expedition but a few months before we left he developed an ulcer which meant he couldn't come; I exploited my contacts with the Norwegian Polar Institute and they took us round to the north-east part of the archipelago where we were dumped on an island with all our provisions and two boats; we couldn't get into the fjord as it was still full of ice but eventually the ice cleared and we could get in and found these pure white gulls nesting on a cliff about 1000 feet up; very exciting to see them; lugged our stuff to the top of the cliff and had five weeks to work on them; found they did not have the adaptations of the kittiwake but it was the first description that had ever been done of them; we nearly got stuck in a blizzard when the boat that was coming to collect us warned us that we were in danger of being iced up in the fjord; Tinbergen was delighted with our results, including very good film; I spent next six months writing up our results

35:47:13 This did conflict with my undergraduate work and only got a 2.2 and feared I'd never be able to do research; George Salt was my supervisor in my first year; he really inspired me, rather severe, but with a formidable mind; after second year did final year zoology which  I loved; taught by Donald Parry and John Pringle; Donald Parry was a kind man but not a very good teacher; at the end of my third year got a first and a University prize; George Salt then suggested I aim at a research fellowship at King's; by that time I had met Robert Hinde who was willing to supervise me but didn't want to risk his friendship with Tinbergen by poaching me; did stay in Cambridge; Hinde was Steward at St John's but soon after got a Royal Society research fellowship; he had come back from Oxford to look after the field station which Bill Thorpe had set up at Madingley; in my first year as a graduate student a Lab was built there and it was renamed as Sub-Department of Animal Behaviour which it still is; Robert has a very sharp mind and reads at an astonishing rate; he was a fantastically good supervisor but very critical; he was like that in seminars where he would tear eminent speakers to pieces; he was unrelenting and people who had experienced this remembered it for years after; as students it taught us to be very critical; do remember that Tinbergen was treated very differently as Robert had a very high respect for him; his paper was on the sorts of questions you can ask about behaviour; question of why gulls removed egg shells from their nests; experimented by putting shells at varying distances from dummy nests and found that the greater the distance from the nest the lower the chance that it would be preyed upon by crows and hedgehogs; suggested this was the reason for the gulls action; this was one of the first attempts to look at the functional significance of a behaviour pattern; he made the point that if you know what the current function of something is it doesn't tell you why it evolved; it could be that when this habit evolved they were then nesting in marshes where the presence of an egg might have actually encouraged disease; possible that this behaviour pattern evolved for one reason but was co-opted for another later in evolution; he was clear about this but many people still muddle it; Robert a marvellous supervisor and had a number of distinguished student such as Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Tim Clutton-Brock and many others

47:38:22 I applied for a Harkness Fellowship and got one to go to California and wanted to work on the mechanisms of behaviour; went to the Lab of a man called Karl Pribram who was a neuro-surgeon and neuro-psychologist; quite different from Robert Hinde; he just loved ideas and was constantly coming up with wild theories; I wanted to work on the neural basis of behaviour and spent two years there; got a rather liberating way of thinking about theory whereas Robert was rather anti-theoretical; an interesting thing to come out of that was an experiment that I did which was to put illuminated panels of letters in monkeys cages which they were exposed to for some time; later they were taken to some apparatus where if they pressed panels letter came up and if they got the right one they got a peanut; discovered that if the monkey had seen one of the letters before then it learnt very quickly; if it had seen two of them then they took much longer to learn to discriminate them than animals that had never seen them before; in a sense they had classified them together and when they had to discriminate between them they had to unlearn the categorisation; this was a new observation and that became the work of one of my graduate students when I came back to Cambridge; I resumed work on behavioural imprinting which I'd done for a Ph.D.; while I was in California I submitted a dissertation to King's and got a junior research fellowship; an important moment as it changed the course of my life; got this in 1964 and that summer had to interrupt the work I was doing as the Harkness insisted that we spent three months travelling round the States; they gave us a car to travel to all the main regions; at the time I was a bit fed up as I wanted to get on with my experiment; of course we had a wonderful trip; then continued working there for a final year; had just married before leaving for California

53:29:20 On coming back to Cambridge had a job lined up for me at Madingley as well where I became senior assistant in research and had the responsibility of looking after day to day administration; Bill Thorpe was my boss and Robert had by that time got a Royal Society research fellowship and fairly soon after became director of an MRC unit within the Sub Department; decided to resume the work I had been doing on behavioural imprinting; about that time came into King's for dinner and sat next to a delightful neuro-scientist working in the Anatomy Department and discovered that he was very interested in the neural basis of learning; that was Gabriel Horn and we started on a long period of collaboration; we think quite differently in many ways but at the same time complemented each other in a really important way and got a great deal out of it, including a long friendship; think that  dining together is a very important way for intellectual ideas to flow; to get this coming together between different disciplines is much more difficult in universities where departments have little opportunity to meet; in Oxford and Cambridge we have this fantastic opportunity to meet people; often in the interstices between disciplines that exciting things happen

57:46:24 At that point Gabriel went on sabbatical to Uganda but when he came back we started working together; we didn't know what to measure at that time and teamed up with a pharmacologist called Les Iversen; he left after a while as he thought we were getting nowhere; Gabriel and I went down to give seminars to a group that Steven Rose ran in London; we wanted to find a biochemist who was keen to collaborate and Steven had been interested in the effects of experience on the nervous system; started an important collaboration between the three of us; then designed increasingly complicated experiments which I think were very important; when you try to look for changes in the brain associated with experience there are all sorts of things that can be going on - the animals can become more active, stressed, attentive, stimulated; if you want to know whether the things you are measuring are specifically related to the laying down of the memory you have to do a whole set of experiments, each of which includes a sub-set of possibilities; devised a kind of triangulation approach which I still think was intellectually very important; sometimes when I see people doing work on the neural basis of behaviour they have not gone through the rigour of excluding alternative explanations; famous example is all the imaging that people do; took us several years but finally able to say pretty confidently that there was an area in the brain which was necessary for the laying down of a memory and specifically related to that; we then needed to identify it much more precisely and at that point Gabriel was moving to; still needed to identify the precise point and developed a technique whereby you take two groups of chicks one of which had learnt as much as it will learn about the imprinting object and a group that has just started to learn; you wait a day and then train both groups for the same amount of time; one group has learnt everything and the other has a lot to learn; they are both stimulated in the same way and at that point you introduce your biochemical marker; then you kill them, slice their brain and see where the activity is occurring; using this technique of under-training or over-training then re-training them next day we were able to find an area of the brain which was particularly related to the laying down of memory; very important as once found the area could be lesioned before imprinting or after when memory of the imprinting object would be destroyed; that became the basis for a lot of work, some of which I was involved with, which Gabriel built on which became a very important starting point for a whole programme of research