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Metapatterns Hardcover – April 15, 1995

ISBN-13: 978-0231067508 ISBN-10: 023106750X

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Volk gives us new ways of thinking about and looking at the world. Intriguingly illustrated with computer and hand drawings, collages and photographs, his lyrical meditation will appeal to scientists, New Age types, interdisciplinary thinkers and the intellectually adventurous. -- Review

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

PROLOGUE: WHAT ARE THE METAPATTERNS?

I have borrowed the word metapattern from Gregory Bateson (19041980). The great synthesizer used it in his masterpiece, Mind and Nature. Oddly, the word appeared only once--though prominently--in the introduction. There Bateson, who worked in anthropology, biology, philosophy, epistemology, cybernetics, and ecology, conveyed the key to his method of thinking. He did so by way of a story.

When teaching, he would pull a crab from a bag. Then the Socratic inquiry would begin: In what ways do the two claw-equipped limbs of a crab share a common anatomy, despite differences in pincer size? Now, how do these large front limbs resemble the crab's walking appendages? Repeat the process with a lobster. Then, how do crabs compare with lobsters? Finally, how does this generalized arthropod pattern compare with the mammalian pattern, drawn from a parallel exercise with a human and a horse? Along the way, he would urge his responders to keep in mind what he called "the discarding of magnitudes in favor of shapes, patterns, and relations.''

What does one gain, what does one perceive by moving through these layers of comprehension? Patterns of patterns--metapatterns.

Bateson took this method well beyond the borders of comparative biology in his quest for the "patterns that connect'' (perhaps his most remembered phrase). Consider biological evolution and human learning, for example. To Bateson they were both instances of a more inclusive pattern. Both use the metapattern of variation and selection--an explosion of possibilities followed by a culling with a strong component of efficacy--to forge a trail in the possibility space of new configurations. One yields forms in the biological world; the other, forms in the psyche.

I was fortunate to have studied with Bateson while he was writing Mind and Nature. It was autumn of 1977, and he was scholar-in-residence at the Lindisfarne Association in New York City. Once every two weeks he held an all-day, free-wheeling seminar, which I could attend because of the itinerant nature and scattered schedule of my work as a freelance plumber, carpenter, and teacher. At that time I was teaching two courses at The School of Visual Arts: "Visual Science'' and "Patterns in Time.'' The first looked at universal patterns in space (here chapters 1-6); the second, in time (chapters 7-10).

The main patterns I was playing with then--spheres, borders, arrows, breaks, and the like--survived the two decades of alternating scrutiny and inattention. The sub-metapatterns, here the sections within chapters, were still years away from making their presence known to me. And only recently have I taken Bateson's term to heart and mind as the overarching descriptor for what continues to be, for me, a family of inspiring concepts.

Initial glimpses of the metapatterns owed to a period of immersion in nature in the early 1970s, during several years of freethinking and wandering after graduating college with a degree in architecture (which I was not keen on immediately utilizing, despite a passion for the subject). Later, in the early 1980s, when I gave up my collaged career to pursue a doctorate in energy and earth sciences, the metapatterns continued to animate and, yes, haunt me. To my delight I found that even the esoteric crannies of disciplinary science were their domain. Metapatterns helped me formulate models of the ocean's carbon cycle and understand the structure of scientific debates. And when, in the 1990s as a tenured professor, I had time during summers and a sabbatical to concentrate on this book, the metapatterns expanded into vistas of questions I could easily spend a lifetime on.

I have offered Bateson's round-about definition of a metapattern. What of mine?

To me, a metapattern is a pattern so wide-flung that it appears throughout the spectrum of reality: in clouds, rivers, and planets; in cells, organisms, and ecosystems; in art, architecture, and politics. The third set, representing all of human creativity, is especially rich with what I perceive as metapatterns--as it should be. Images and insights that pull at my own thoughts are sure to have influenced those of others.

I use the word metapattern in the Batesonian spirit--as a pattern of patterns--and seek examples at the very broadest scale. Alas, my definition, too, is round-about. I define metapatterns by saying where they are found and how I use them. But what are they? And are they out there (patterns sensed) or in here (patterns imagined)?

Suppose you were asked to define a canoe. You describe a canoe's shape, its dimensions, materials, even methods of construction--as if preparing to build or at least to recognize one. In another type of answer you might describe what a canoe does, how it functions, namely, carrying a person across water. Perhaps in this case the listener might need to use the canoe.

There is yet a third way of responding. Rather than saying anything directly about the canoe, you describe the experience of being in a canoe, what can be seen while paddling around--perhaps creeks tumbling from forested gorges into a secluded lake. This third way of answering is the way I have chosen to present the metapatterns.

This book is thus a travelogue. It contains views of reality seen from the canoe of metapatterns. The various creeks I visit are the many disciplines--physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, psychology, mythology, culture. Because metapatterns have given me a canoe for exploration, they are admittedly something I have constructed, a self-developed way of thinking. But this is only part of the story, one face of a rich metaphor.

Let's say that the metapatterns are not the canoe but the lake itself. Just as the feeder streams flow into this single body of water, so too the streams from many regions of reality pour into the great reservoir of metapatterns. Perhaps the metapatterns are attractors--functional universals for forms in space, processes in time, and concepts in mind. Surely in this mind they have served as such. I invite you to let them enter into yours. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 296 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 15, 1995)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 023106750X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231067508
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #732,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tyler Volk is Science Director for Environmental Studies and Professor of Biology at New York University. Recipient of the NYU All-University Distinguished Teaching Award, Volk lectures and travels widely, communicates his ideas in a variety of media, plays lead guitar for the science-inspired rock band The Amygdaloids, and is an avid outdoorsman. Volk's previous books include CO2 Rising: The World's Greatest Environmental Challenge; Metapatterns Across Space, Time, and Mind; and Gaia's Body: Toward a Physiology of Earth.

Customer Reviews

Dr. Volk brings you along on his life journey of exploration.
Anthony Dedousis
In the years to come, Metapatterns will be considered one of the books which paved the way for the science of the 21st century.
J. Richards
It is difficult to characterize the book without going on for pages, but I will do my best.
Matthew Evinger

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Evinger on April 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As a freshman at NYU, I had a seminar with Tyler Volk based around Metapatterns. It is difficult to characterize the book without going on for pages, but I will do my best. Metapatterns is epistemology, meditation, mythology, systems theory, ecology, and a thousand other fields of thought. As Volk defines it, a metapattern is a "pattern of patterns... so wide-flung that it appears throughout the spectrum of reality: in clouds, rivers and planets; in cells, organisms, and ecosystems; in art, architecture, and politics." Volk is essentially a tour guide with only a rough outline of an itinerary, but this is a good thing: rigid formalism would preclude many of the connections he is making. Since each chapter is an account of one of the patterns' appearances and significance throughout the "spectrum of reality," there is a lot of ground to cover. This results in an unconventional structure but it's still easy to follow Volk from one point to the next. The collages interspersed through the book help with this a lot, especially since the whole idea of metapatterns is largely visual. Most of the time Volk is both comprehensive and coherent, but this is not always true. Occasionally (I'm sticking with the expedition metaphor here) some bushwhacking is required to get back to the original path. But the further you get into the book, the more you can follow its logic. "Spheres," the first chapter, is the strongest, and best makes the case. This may be because the sphere is, in a sense, the primary metapattern. Later chapters spring off in different directions. Some seem not to fit well (calendars, for example), but the whole time you are getting a better sense of what is actually going through Volk's mind. And eventually, as you move through the book, the ideas become self-evident.Read more ›
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Michael M. Simpson, R.A. on July 1, 2000
Format: Paperback
As a practicing architect who has a regular opportunity to explore the "meaningful making of space" this book was quite an eye opener. I've spent a great deal of time looking for order amongst the disorder of everyday life and the designed environment, finding the threads in "Metapatterns" was a good pathway to understanding the relationships. If Lou Kahn were alive today, it would probably take him to new spaces and forms. Excellent!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jeffrey W. Bloom on July 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Tyler Volk's book, Metapatterns..., is an extraordinary book. In the spirit of Gregory Bateson from whom the term "metapatterns" originates, he does not give the reader the whole story or "the answer," but rather provides a rich source for readers to develop their own stories and their own answers (or to make metapatterns their own). As an educator and researcher, I have found the metapatterns described by Volk to be infinitely useful as (a) tools for analyzing data from studies of cognition, discourse, classrooms, interpersonal relationships, the politics of schooling, etc.; (b) tools for designing social and physical contexts of classrooms, curriculum, and representations of material; and (c) the specific content to study in courses. Since metapatterns appear almost everywhere in every discipline and in every aspect of everyday life, they address our basic understandings of the world in ways that can allow us to make connections in new and exciting ways. It is truly a revolutionizing book. When I have taught courses based on metapatterns, the better students have cursed me for introducing metapatterns: "damn you! All I see is metapatterns!" Such comments are a testament to the power of metapatterns in transforming the way we see the world. This book is a must read for those who are willing to take fresh view of their worlds, to think critically and creatively, and to take control of their own learning rather than be spoon fed answers.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By D. S. Bornus on February 21, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I initially found this book intriguing, but after a while I became quite bored with it. So there are many things in the world that are round, flat, tubular, bordered, etc., and these can be metaphors for other things. Ok, so what? I kept waiting for the author to make his point, but the descriptions just went on and on.

This book may have some value as a source of pretext for meditation or creativity exercises, or those seeking material for artistic collages. There are some short passages that were evocative. But overall I didn't get much from this to justify the time I spent reading it.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Anthony Dedousis on August 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Man and woman, the double helix, positive and negative, acid and base, action and reaction, predator and prey. These are pairs of twos found in the world around us. Tyler Volk names them binaries, which are one of his `metapatterns' or `pattern of patterns' or universal motifs described in great detail in his book.

Some might find the metapatterns proposed as crazy manifestations. Some might find them real and useful, especially as analytical tools, which can be applied to any field to better understand the larger picture or the behind the scene activities of that field. For example, as an athlete and athletic trainer, I have used the metapattern of `boarders' to better understand why different sports share very common characteristics and lack others. Whatever one's opinions are about the existence and relevance of metapatterns, "Metapatterns" has much to offer beyond its main theory.

The observations and analytical methods of "Metapatterns" are truly a feat in the name of interdisciplinary work. Dr. Volk brings you along on his life journey of exploration. Observations are vividly represented and written in a way in which non-science people can understand. Dr. Volk's ability of transcending disciplines to find connections, which become Volk's metapatterns, will urge you to do the same.

"Metapatterns" will dive into ideas and explore them from many angles, sometimes more than the reader may have bargained for. The reader must be ready for a true mental exercise. "Metapatterns" will surely take you to uncharted waters.

I feel that if you are up for it, "Metapatterns" will be a mind-expanding and illuminating read.
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