William H. Calvin, "A short bio and statement of futurist interests," for the Humanity 3000 program at Foundation for the Future. See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/1990s/1999FFF-H3000.htm.
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William H. Calvin
University of Washington
William H. Calvin
Here, I take it, I need to convey both where I come from and where we're going. The first part is easy: I'm a brain researcher at the University of Washington, concerned with both circuits for higher intellectual function and the up-from-the-apes evolutionary story. My next two books are Lingua ex machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (co-authored by the linguist Derek Bickerton, MIT Press) and Cool, Crash and Burn: The Once and Future Climate for Human Evolution (in preparation; here's a précis). The latter book is an expansion of the cover story that I wrote for the January 1998 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, "The Great Climate Flip-flop."
Though, from departmental affiliations, you'd think that I used to be a neurosurgeon, but am now a psychiatrist, I'm really just a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics with a long association with clinicians and zoologists. I'm also affiliated with Emory University's Living Links Center, a member of the Science Advisory Board for a NOVA television series on evolution that is being planned by WGBH, on the Board of Advisors to the Foundation for the Future, and a member of the Global Business Network (a group of scenario-spinning futurists who try to think a few decades ahead -- WIRED once called us a "Conspiracy of Heretics"). Now to the hard part.
The future is arriving more quickly than it used to, and, since we don't respond any more quickly than before, it makes foresight more important than ever. For a decade, I've been talking regularly with futurists and learned that foresight isn't simply prediction; it's about imagining a spread of possibilities and their consequences (see Peter Schwartz's The Art of the Long View). They've learned to bracket the future with alternative scenarios, each of which captures important features that cluster together, each of which is compact enough to be seen as a narrative on a human scale.
Foresight is also about taking responsibility for seeing that things turn out well (see Stewart Brand's The Clock of the Long Now). My own "future issues" -- the ones that go beyond the general and demand specialist knowledge to see why there are problems-- have tended to fall into two broad categories: 1) the future evolution of human intelligence, and 2) the future of earth's climate and its consequences for civilization.
Evolution isn’t what most people think it is (some sort of efficiency improvement process operating along a single track). Rather, there is a lot of multiple use, just as there is for all those curb cuts created for wheelchairs but now used for suitcases, baby carriages, bicycles and so forth. A different use may pay for the next round of improvements, benefitting other uses "for free."
And the future evolution of intelligence probably won’t be like the past (natural selection has been enormously slowed by agricultural surpluses, community responses to disasters, etc.). Instead, germ-line genetic engineering and cloning will likely occur. And we’ll find ways to enhance intelligence when our educational technologies are able to take advantage of insights gained from brain research: we'll know what to teach when, how to pyramid things, how to exercise the imagination, and when to consolidate. All of higher intellectual function (syntax, planning, music, logical trains of inference, games with arbitrary rules) could look very different after a few generations of this teaching based on knowing how the brain actually works.
There's one example of my futurist writings in this area in the last chapter of my book How Brains Think and originally entitled "Cautions on the superhuman transition."
Future Climate (and The Future's Intelligence Test for Humans)
As I said at the beginning of The Atlantic article: "When 'climate change' is referred to in the press, it normally means greenhouse warming, which, it is predicted, will cause flooding, severe windstorms, and killer heat waves. But warming could also lead, paradoxically, to abrupt and drastic cooling — a catastrophe that could threaten the end of civilization."
The earth's climate does great flip-flops every few thousand years, and with breathtaking speed. We could go back to ice-age temperatures within a decade — and judging from recent discoveries, an abrupt cooling could be triggered by our current global-warming trend. Europe's climate could become more like Siberia's, and even the tropics cool down abruptly, creating great forest fires on a far larger scale than we saw during the recent El Niño. Because such a cooling and drying would occur too quickly for us to make readjustments in agricultural productivity and associated supply lines, it would be a potentially civilization-shattering affair, likely to cause a population crash far worse than those seen in the wars and plagues of history. What paleoclimate and oceanography researchers know of the mechanisms underlying such a climate "flip" suggests that global warming could start one in several different ways.
The best understood part of the flip-flop tendencies involves what happens to the warm Gulf Stream waters, with the flow of about a hundred Amazon Rivers, once they split off Ireland into the two major branches of the North Atlantic Current. They sink to the depths of the Greenland-Norwegian Sea and the Labrador Sea because so much evaporation takes place (warming up the cold dry winds from Canada, and eventually Europe, so that it is unlike Canada and Siberia) that the surface waters become cold and hypersaline - and therefore more dense than the underlying waters. At some sinking sites, giant whirlpools 15 km in diameter can be found, carrying surface waters down into the depths. Routinely flushing the cold waters in this manner makes room for more warm waters to flow far north.
But this sinking mechanism can fail if fresh water accumulates on the surface, diluting the dense waters. The increased rainfall that occurs with global warming causes more rain to fall into the oceans at the high latitudes. Ordinarily, rain falling into the ocean is not a problem -- but at these sites in the Labrador and Greenland-Norwegian Seas, it can be catastrophic. So can meltwater from nearby Greenland ice cap, especially when it comes out in surges. By shutting down the high-latitude parts of this "Nordic Heat Pump," these consequences of global warming can abruptly change Europe's climate. If Europe's agriculture reverted to the productivity of Canada's (at the same latitudes but lacking a preheating for winds off the Pacific Ocean), 22 out of 23 Europeans would starve.The surprise was that it isn't just Europe that gets hit hard. Most of the habitable parts of the world have similarly cooled during past episodes. Another failure would cause a population crash that would take much of civilization with it, all within a decade.
Ways to postpone such a climatic shift are conceivable, however -- cloud-seeding to create rain shadows in critical locations are just one possibility. Although we can't do much about everyday weather or greenhouse warming, we may nonetheless be able to stabilize the climate enough to prevent an abrupt cooling.
Devising a long-term scheme for stabilizing the flushing mechanism has now become one of the major tasks of our civilization, essential to prevent a drastic downsizing whose wars over food would leave a world where everyone hated their neighbors for good reasons. Human levels of intelligence allow us both foresight and rational planning. Civilization has enormously expanded our horizons, allowing us to look far into the past and learn from it. But it remains to be seen whether humans are capable of passing this intelligence test that the climate sets for us.
Humanity 3000 Participant Statement
William H. Calvin
I. CRITICAL FACTORS
A. What are the factors that are most critical to the long term survival of humanity?
B. What are the current map and trajectory of these factors?
II. POTENTIAL IN YOUR FIELD
What do you envision as the greatest potential/future in your field in the 1000 year future?
III. DISCUSSION TOPICS/QUESTIONS
What are two or three topics/questions, critical to the long term future that you wish to explore in small group settings at H3000?
IV. 1000 YEAR VISION
Please articulate your vision of the 1000 year future in a 3-5 line statement.