Filling the Empty Niches
The Popularization of Cognitive
Neuroscience Has a Long Way to Go
William H. Calvin
University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA
When surveying the spectrum from pop psych to neurology in
works addressed to general readers, one is struck by how few
major figures there have been - certainly when cognitive
neuro is compared to a far smaller field(1), evolutionary biology, where
real literary talents like Loren Eiseley once flourished, where "media
dons" like Richard Dawkins regularly clarify our thinking, where there
are magnificent series like those of Stephen Jay Gould (fifteen major
essays a year, plus scholarly books and research papers, spanning three
decades) which have influenced millions to read more. Many writers in
the cognitive spectrum have occasionally written an influential book or
two, but few could fill the largest available campus auditorium on name
recognition alone, even without announcing a topic for the lecture - or
have their name be the answer to a column in a crossword puzzle.
I don't have any answers for why this is so (though I'll presently
quote Jacob Bronowski on the subject), but all those empty niches
certainly indicate an opportunity for anyone hoping to contribute to the
popularization of cognitive neuro. A niche, in ecology, is all that a
species needs to function: the right food, climate, protection from
predators, nesting sites, migration routes, and so forth. An empty niche is a proven niche
going unused. I argue that the popularization successes in an adjacent
field, evolutionary biology, suggest that a similar niche is there for
popularizing cognitive neuro. I will name these empty niches for
suitable role models elsewhere ("The Lewis Thomas Niche").
Migration Routes (Where Do the Readers Come From?)
Science reporting is very uneven in its coverage (just try comparing
what the New York Times covers with a list of major projects funded by
foundations and governments). That's because science reporters (or,
more likely, their editors) find it hard to imagine that potential readers
are readily available for many subjects. There's an "entry level" aspect,
from which one can later make a transition to serious stuff -- but general
circulation magazines, newspapers, and trade publishers often have an
They're not multilevel. It's the same sort of widest-possible-audience reasoning that has made television news programs so shallow.
Even though very important for our battle with a changing climate,
ocean currents must seem, to editors, like a subject with few ready-made
Fortunately, we in cognitive neuroscience don't have the same
problem as oceanography - or, indeed, most other important fields of
research -- because everyone comes with an innate interest in other
people's psychological makeup. Unless they've been terminally put off
by the froth of some pop psych (the ones where it's easy to read an entire
chapter which has no memorable content), they're likely to give a glance
to something featuring minds/brains. No other field of popular science
comes with the built-in advantages of anything involving cognition.
Though it may take a while to convince some that the mind is surely
in the brain, this bleed-over from popular psychology into cognitive
neuro is easily the major source of readers (those writing about other
fields can likely identify similar major migration routes). We also have
some secondary sources: there's the medical route, as when stroke or
dementia patients in the family serve as an impetus to read more. And
the "neat mechanism" route which attracts readers in from physics and
Finally, let me mention the coffee-table-book niche: colorful images
of the brain-in-action as an art form seem possible. Alas, there is also
another more cynical use of coffee-table books from which authors
occasionally profit, e.g., all those unread copies of Stephen Hawking's
A Brief History of Time serving to advertise to visitors that the
inhabitants of the house are the kinds of people who are capable of
reading serious books. This niche aspect is closely related to one of the
rationales in gift book selection: people give books like Hawking's to
flatter their bosses or friends -- saying, in effect, "I may not be able to
read books like this, but I know you're the sort of person who can
understand Hawking." Authors should not turn up their noses at this: it
seeds a lot of homes with books that unintended recipients end up
reading during school vacations.
Beyond entry level appeal, there is the "serious readers" level: an
audience that is capable of following a sustained line of argument
without constant re-motivation(3) and the pretty-but-irrelevant pictures
that clutter modern textbooks. While academics in adjacent fields are
one example (hopefully, neurophysiologists will read some linguistics
now and then, and vice versa), there is a much broader base when it
comes to cognitive neuro: the entire range of creative people, from
poets to programmers. They're curious about how they pull off their
successes. University Presses readily publish these serious-readers
books, but trade publishers may do so only if they anticipate an
additional draw via name-recognition, entry-level, coffee-table, or
flattery-by-gift types. Serious readers are an influential readership but
not (for cognitive neuroscience, in the US) a large one - not compared
with the readership implied by my four decades of examples from
Readers in adjacent fields are an extremely important audience, just
for the progress of science. Pharmacologists are likely to get much of
their information about cerebral localization of function from
newspapers, television specials, and popular books, reading a review
article only if they actually have to give a lecture involving the subject.
Many interdisciplinary research opportunities have been opened up by
an article intended for a more entry-level reader. Certainly, I got my
beginning education in evolutionary biology back in 1980 via Steve
Gould's monthly columns.
There are some hazards to this cross-fertilization. Every time that
I see a watered-down and somewhat misleading article about a subject
I know well, I shudder - because I realize that my own information
about other fields has often come through exactly such a distorting filter,
but one I cannot appreciate yet. Writers who aim at general audiences
have to remember that busy scientists are also going to read their
simplification attempt - and be misled if it's misleading. Errors that
may seem innocuous, when considering only the lay audience, may be
serious if they mislead working scientists in other fields. Yes, they
should know better than to rely on such popular articles, but the
conclusions they draw may cause them to lose interest and never get to
the library, or to assume something is so well established that there's no
need to read the details.
Protection from Predators
The scientist contemplating writing for a wider audience will often
assume that others in the field will be critical, that such a writer will
constantly have to justify simplifications or omissions. Or that others
will be suspicious that the writer is seeking fame via bypassing the long
hard grind of academic publication. While such comment surely
happens on occasion, the writer is more likely to be nearly invisible
within the field, even if moderately-well-known outside the field.
The reason for this invisibility is simple. Scientists, as I have said,
are also general readers. They only have so much time to read, and so
they mostly read outside their own field. Neuroscientists will tend to
read popular books on cosmology or evolutionary biology, not popular
books on brains (they'll assume they know it all, even if you're sure they
don't). In my experience, experts learn about a popular book on their
subject only years after publication, and then only because a new student
tells them about it or because they go looking for supplementary reading
material for an introductory course.
If, of course, you attain prominence and then criticize a whole field
such as evolutionary psychology in the New York Review of Books, a
thick hide will then be needed. But this is a rare occurrence, not the
The widespread curiosity about minds is a start, but writers also need
an established way to reach their audience. Attention is a precious
commodity, and people tend to rely on trusted gatekeepers, such as
magazines, newspapers, television -- though this is breaking down
somewhat, with the web's ability to bypass them.
The "op-ed" pages of local newspapers provide a place for well-written articles of about 700 words. This is an entry-level niche that
didn't exist several decades ago, and it will likely expand with the
expansion of web portals having editor-selected commentary.
Regular columns have played an important role, particularly if later
converted into books. Lewis Thomas and Stephen Jay Gould came up
by this route, thanks to far-sighted editors of the New England Journal
of Medicine and Natural History, but the regular column for a wide
audience is largely unexploited in cognitive neuro.
Science journalists have largely filled this niche in many fields; they
write as observers rather than participants in the great exploration, but
the sustained output of someone like Daniel Goleman reporting on
psychology is very important. It doesn't require a Ph.D. in your subject
(as Goleman has) to be a good reporter; many science reporters are
simply literature or journalism majors who have developed into real fans
of science over the years, and they are often better at judging what will
confuse general readers than are people used to dealing with students
who have taken all the prerequisites.
Many of the people who write popular books do not come up via
writing shorter pieces, nor are they first famous within their own fields(4).
They simply start, as I did, with writing books(5). They have, however, all
the usual problems in finding publishers (actually, in first finding a
literary agent that will take them on). What they are initially judged on,
the book proposal, is often no longer than 1,500 words - just twice the
length of an op-ed piece. Editors don't have time to read much more.
So the entré for getting to publish a full-length book is generally via a
very well written short preface to such a book, one that can "hook" an
agent and then some editors. You can't avoid writing short succinct
pieces, even if you confine yourself to books!
It may be possible to bypass some of these getting-space obstacles
in other media. Given the "re-invent everything" attitudes seen among
web developers, there will be nonprint analogies to columns and books,
perhaps with important multimedia advantages and new entry-level
options for science popularizers.
Where the writer comes from
Interlopers from other scientific fields have their advantages and
disadvantages as writers. I recently ventured outside my own field to
write a cover story for The Atlantic Monthly about abrupt climate
change, its history and likely oceanographic mechanisms; the editor
really had to twist my arm for weeks to get me to undertake it but, in
retrospect, I worried too much.
I fully expected that people within geophysics would be somewhat
unhappy about this trespass. I reasoned that even if I were to avoid all
the usual conceptual errors, even if I managed to use all those tricky
qualifications ("nearly all," double negatives, and so forth) meant to
show that you understand their concerns and have neatly sidestepped the
confounding issues, that they'd still be unhappy -- probably with my
metaphors, with who I'd left out, with my own interpretations of
instability mechanisms. I actually got very little such feedback; it was
mostly along the lines of "Well, it's really even more complicated, you
know" -- and that's the inevitable problem (as most of them appreciated)
when reducing a book-length topic to a mere 6,600 words.
The hardest part of writing the article was finding suitable metaphors
for a whole series of technical terms, processes, and possibilities; I might
have figured out the oceanographers' unique use of the word "water" but
I knew it would throw most readers -- and that they'd never wind up
reading my finale. It took months before the trial-run metaphors settled
I also realized that what made it possible for a neurophysiologist to
write about geophysics was that the oceanographers and atmospheric
scientists have been very good about putting teaching materials
(including huge glossaries with literature references), grant proposals,
and review papers up on web pages. They are years ahead of the
neurosciences in this regard, one reason why it would be hard for
someone in geophysics to undertake a similar article about the latest
spectacular findings in cognitive neuro.
One advantage of a scientist writing about other scientific fields is
this sensitivity to terminology and reader's hardships. And such an
outsider -- if also a good writer -- may be better at spotting what piece
of the whole makes for a good story. Researchers immersed in a field
tend to see things as a morass of unfinished problems and unsatisfactory
precision, with lots of loose ends -- but a writer who can navigate around
the research area may often see some part of it that can stand alone and
be memorable, constitute a "good story." An example in my formative
years was the astronomer Carl Sagan writing about neurobiology in his
1974 book, The Dragons of Eden.
One disadvantage of interloping scientists, of course, is that some
may come with an agenda, such as an answer in search of a question
(quantum physics as the answer to - Well, how about consciousness!).
Or the interloper may invent an unfortunate term. Consider how the
term "neural networks" was coined by the physicists to represent a web
of abstract elements, in ignorance of the more concrete, structured
connotations among neurophysiologists who had been working for
decades on actual neural networks like those in Limulus. Every time we
had to say "real neural networks," we cursed the physicists for hijacking
The exploitation of scientific ignorance
But most such borrowing is, of course, an innocent search for
analogies. There are examples, however, where outsiders borrow
terminology in order to borrow the prestige of science or technology. "A
little knowledge is a dangerous thing," in part, because there are people
who will exploit the situation with a shell game that calls one thing by
The classic is when someone appends "Science" to the name of their
nonscientific enthusiasm. But sometimes they simultaneously borrow
from three fields -- say, from neuro, linguistics, and programming -- to
suggest a magnificent convergence that few among the involuntary
donors would recognize.
Companies that make agricultural machinery have been known to
change their corporate name to suggest celestial navigation (though the
maneuver was unlikely to impress farmers, it might have fooled some in
banking and the stock market). Some advertising agencies specialize in
this sort of renaming. This cynical exploitation of scientific prestige will
diminish only when more people actually know something about
science, only when scientific societies take more of a role in defending
their terminology from misappropriation.
Part of the bad reputation of popularized science within science itself
is, of course, due to seeing too many examples of what happens when
people of little understanding grab something and run with it,
particularly when they do it to exploit those who cannot tell the
difference between science and hyperbole. There are, of course,
inevitably areas where knowledge is thin and wisdom is hypothetical;
that's just the current state of affairs and there is no point in trying to
hold up some new therapy to the standards of physics. But some fields
are nothing but the popularization of some notion: one book and its one
idea will become the "bible" of a movement. Even the well-intentioned
ones may exhibit some of the problems of the advertising agencies and
their exploitation of scientific terminology. While most fads will merely
constitute a waste of time and money, some -- repressed memory
therapies are likely an example -- may not be harmless and their
incautious fans unlikely to diligently adhere to that Hippocratic
aphorism, "First, do no harm."
One appropriate response is more popularization, not less. So long
as the power of science and technology is known to the public, there will
always be a niche for impressing the clueless - and we all, at some stage
in our life, are ignorant. We are all, in some areas, gullible. And
expertise in one area may not produce appropriate caution in other areas
(some physicians, for example, have a reputation for gullibility
regarding investments, despite their everyday experience in dealing with
patients who were gullible about "natural" therapies and delayed too
It's not that the public is uninterested in science - they are, and
certainly in matters cognitive. But they don't have the time to become
experts and learn all the pitfalls that experts eventually learn to avoid.
The best statement on the subject that I know was made by Carl Sagan
in Broca's Brain:
There is a vast untapped popular interest in the deepest scientific questions. For
many people, the shoddily thought out doctrines of borderline science
[parapsychology, astrology, ancient astronauts] are the closest approximation
to comprehensible science readily available. The popularity of borderline
science is a rebuke to the schools, the press, and commercial television for their
sparse, unimaginative and ineffective efforts at science education, and to us
scientists, for doing so little to popularize our subject.
And there's that memorable warning in C. P. Snow's novel, The Search,
where one of the characters says
The how of human beings -- every village gossip has been doing that since
talking started.... It's the why of human beings you've got to understand.... Or
else you'll be giving all your science to a mob of children. Whatever they do
with it, they won't know why. We can never trust them. Unless they know the
why about themselves, then everything in the world is like giving a child some
poison and telling it to go and play in the kitchen.
The very short pieces needed for entré into science popularization
(whether op-ed columns or book proposals) rely heavily on exposition,
pure and simple. Longer pieces may benefit from some structure.
Scientists usually will think in terms of a logical development of
concepts, but let me also suggest some of the principles of narrative and
They offer two major advantages: hanging the material on a
narrative framework makes it more memorable, more likely to still be
there two weeks later. And it makes it more likely that the reader will
make it all the way to the end of the article or book. "Spontaneous
abortions" are very common in reading, and the writer needs to
constantly worry about losing the audience. Consider this description of
our orientation toward narrative by the writer Kathryn Morton(6) :
The first sign that a baby is going to be a human being and not a noisy pet
comes when he begins naming the world and demanding the stories that
connect its parts. Once he knows the first of these he will instruct his teddy
bear, enforce his world view on victims in the sandlot, tell himself stories of
what he is doing as he plays and forecast stories of what he will do when he
grows up. He will keep track of the actions of others and relate deviations to
the person in charge. He will want a story at bedtime.
Nothing passes but the mind grabs it and looks for a way to fit it into a
story, or into a variety of possible scripts....
The medical detective stories make implicit use of such narrative
structure, and some books are crafted more explicitly around journeys.
My rationale for writing a 600-page book around a two-week-long float
trip down the Colorado River(7) was that the Grand Canyon was full of
ways of illustrating evolution on both geological and cultural time scales
- and that the journey itself gave me the freedom to gamble a little with
material that some subset of readers would consider "more than they
wanted to know." Skimming over the hard parts is thought not to be
possible with science (indeed, because of the logical progression of
science textbooks, if you don't understand chapter two, you'll never
make it through chapter six) - and this attitude, carried over to popular
writing about science, may cause the reader to needlessly drop out, to
never finish the book. But with a familiar framework such as a journey,
the floundering reader is more likely to skim the hard part in anticipation
of picking up the thread of the journey. This sense of continuity and
expectation was surely the case back in the days before stories such as
the Iliad and the Oddessey were written down.
Neuroscience Niche Examples
There are easily a dozen levels of organization within the
neurosciences, ranging from membrane channels up through synapses
and cells to circuits and regional specializations between the cerebral
hemispheres. And that's just the anatomy: functionally, we have
reflexes, one-trial memories, learning, and so on, all the way up to
hallucinations, obsessions, and creativity. We have time scales ranging
from milliseconds to lifetimes.
I don't propose to survey the people who write popular books about
some part of the cognitive spectrum. But I would like to identify several
"neighborhood niches," both perspectives from slightly outside of the
research mainstream. It's almost as if there were "licensed
commentators," people coming from disciplines that are expected to
have a broad perspective. First there's the viewpoint from philosophy
into cognitive science. It's occupied presently by a number of people,
one of the most quotable of which is Daniel C. Dennett. In Kinds of
Minds (1996, p. 147), he writes:
There is no step more uplifting, more momentous in the history of mind design
than the invention of language. When Homo sapiens became the beneficiary
of this invention, the species stepped into a slingshot that has launched it far
beyond all other earthly species in the power to look ahead and reflect.
In Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995, p. 460), Dennett writes:
We, unlike the cells that compose us, are not on ballistic trajectories; we are
guided missiles, capable of altering course at any point, abandoning goals,
switching allegiances, forming cabals and then betraying them, and so forth.
For us, it is always decision time, and because we live in a world of memes, no
consideration is alien to us, or a foregone conclusion.
That's the level of writing, and mastery of ideas, that it takes to
influence a lot of readers.
The other neighborhood niche is the perspective from the medical
end of the spectrum. It too has a number of contemporary practitioners,
and the neurologist Oliver Sacks is widely known for very good reasons.
He is not especially quotable, because he is the master of the humanistic
narrative -- everything's too connected to excerpt -- but here, from
Seeing Voices, is his description of an eleven-year-old deaf boy, reared
without sign language for his first ten years, showing what life is like
Joseph saw, distinguished, categorized, used; he had no problems with
perceptual categorization or generalization, but he could not, it seemed, go
much beyond this, hold abstract ideas in mind, reflect, play, plan. He seemed
completely literal -- unable to juggle images or hypotheses or possibilities,
unable to enter an imaginative or figurative realm.... He seemed, like an animal,
or an infant, to be stuck in the present, to be confined to literal and immediate
perception, though made aware of this by a consciousness that no infant could
More consistently quotable is Mel Konner(8), who views cognitive neuro
both as a research insider and from the perspective of medicine and
At the conclusion of all our studies we must try once again to experience the
human soul as soul, and not just as a buzz of bioelectricity; the human will as
will, and not just a surge of hormones; the human heart not as a fibrous, sticky
pump, but as the metaphoric organ of understanding. We need not believe in
them as metaphysical entities -- they are as real as the flesh and blood they are
made of. But we must believe in them as entities; not as analyzed fragments,
but as wholes made real by our contemplation of them, by the words we use to
talk of them, by the way we have transmuted them to speech. We must stand
in awe of them as unassailable, even though they are dissected before our eyes.
Most popular writing about matters cognitive does not aspire to this
literary level. And it can be effective without such poetic density. Most
of our information comes from science journalism, plain unadorned
prose from a writer who has taken the time to understand something of
the subject and to select a limited piece of it which will make a good
The Available Empty Niches
But any writer who aspires to a wider audience has a number of
role models to chose from. So let me conclude with a selection of role
models from outside cognitive neuro, though I have tried to select
quotations from the occasions when they are addressing cognitive topics.
First let me show some selections from the literary world:
The highest activities of consciousness have their origins in physical
occurrences of the brain, just as the loveliest melodies are not too sublime to
be expressed by notes.But my main effort is to select scientists from other fields, those that
have made a sustained effort at popularizing science and commenting on
a larger scene, each creating a significant niche. Some of these niches
are now entirely unfilled: Loren Eiseley and Jacob Bronowski died in the
mid-seventies, Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas in the mid-nineties, and
there's still no one around who is comparable, not to any of them. Other
niches are empty only in the sense that no one has become established
as a cognitive counterpart to such evolutionary biologists as Richard
Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould.
W. Somerset Maugham
The way we think in dreams is also the way we think when we are awake,
all of these images occurring simultaneously, images opening up new
images, charging and recharging, until we have a whole new field of image,
an electric field pulsing and blazing and taking on the exact character of a
migraine aura.... Usually we sedate ourselves to keep the clatter down.... I
don't necessarily mean with drugs, not at all. Work is a sedative. The love
of children can be a sedative.... Another way we keep the clatter down is by
trying to make it coherent, trying to give it the same dramatic shape we give
to our dreams; in other words by making up stories. All of us make up
stories. Some of us, if we are writers, write these stories down, concentrate
on them, worry them, revise them, throw them away and retrieve them and
revise them again, focus on them all our attention, all of our emotion, render
them into objects.
Joan Didion, 1979
The search for truth is predatory. It is a literal hunt, a conquest. There is
that exemplary instant in Book IV of The Republic, when Socrates and his
companions in discourse corner an abstract truth. They halloo, like hunters
who have unearthed and run down their quarry.... [Even if enjoined from
the scientific quest,] somewhere, at some moment, a man alone, a group of
men addicted to the drug of absolute thought, will be seeking to create
organic tissue, to determine the nature of heredity, to produce the cloud-chamber trail of quarks. Not for renown, not for the benefit of the human
species, not in the name of social justice or profit, but because of a drive
stronger than love, stronger than even hatred, which is to be interested in
something. For its own enigmatic sake. Because it is there.
George Steiner, 1978
Language, like other cognitive structures, is useful for some tasks and
worthless for others. I cannot tell you, because I do not know, what my
language prevents me from knowing. Language is itself like a work of art;
it selects, abstracts, exaggerates, and orders.
Annie Dillard, Living by Fiction, 1982
I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you
get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make
a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.
Tom Stoppard, The Right Thing
The Loren Eiseley Niche
The salt of those ancient seas is in our blood, its lime is in our bones. Every
time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find
ourselves shedding shoes and garments, or scavenging among seaweed and
whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war.
The Unexpected Universe, 1969
Parts of [the world] are neither land nor sea and so everything is moving
from one element to another, wearing uneasily the queer transitional bodies
that life adopts in such places. Fish, some of them, come out and breathe air
and sit about watching you. Plants take to eating insects, mammals go back
to the water and grow elongate like fish, crabs climb trees. Nothing stays
put where it began because everything is constantly climbing in, or climbing
out, of its unstable environment.
The Night Country, 1971
Curious, I took a pencil from my pocket and touched a strand of the [spider]
web. Immediately there was a response. The web, plucked by its menacing
occupant, began to vibrate until it was a blur. Anything that had brushed
claw or wing against that amazing snare would be thoroughly entrapped. As
the vibrations slowed, I could see the owner fingering her guidelines for
signs of struggle. A pencil point was an intrusion into this universe for
which no precedent existed. Spider was circumscribed by spider ideas; its
universe was spider universe. All outside was irrational, extraneous, at best
raw material for spider. As I proceeded on my way along the gully, like a
vast impossible shadow, I realized that in the world of spider I did not exist.
The Star Thrower
The Richard Dawkins Niche
Evolution is an enchanted loom of shuttling DNA codes, whose evanescent
patterns, as they dance their partners through geological deep time, weave a
massive database of ancestral wisdom, a digitally coded description of
ancestral worlds and what it took to survive in them.
Climbing Mount Improbable, 1996
Any suggestion that the child's mathematical ineptitude might have a genetic
origin is likely to be greeted with something approaching despair: if it is in
the genes "it is written", it is "determined" and nothing can be done about it;
you might as well give up attempting to teach the child mathematics. This is
pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale. Genetic causes and
environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some
influences of both types may be hard to reverse, others may be easy.
The Extended Phenotype, 1982
Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes which is any one of
us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William
the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the
old king's genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if
you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a
tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after
your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not
have a gene or two alive in the world today... but who cares? The memes of
Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus, and Marconi are still going strong.
The Selfish Gene, 1976
The Jacob Bronowski Niche
A difficulty of lay discussion on scientific subjects is usually this, that there
exists no common language in which scientists and laymen can talk together
about scientific ideas. In each generation, the subjects which blaze into the
headlines are therefore those rare exceptions where such a language does
happen to exist. This is why the nineteenth century got so excited about the
age of the earth and the descent of man. Those were not the largest, the
most interesting, or even the most popular advances of science. No, they
were typical scientific ideas, but they were in the one field where everyone
knew the language. Here therefore the issue between traditional opinion and
the new scientific approach could be clearly understood and argued.
The Common Sense of Science
The hand is the cutting edge of the mind.
The Ascent of Mind, 1973
The Stephen Jay Gould Niche
We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called
intelligence, the stewards of life's continuity on earth. We did not ask for
this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we
Natural History, 1984
There may be nothing new under the sun, but permutation of the old within
complex systems can do wonders.
Ontogeny and Phylogeny, 1977
The Carl Sagan Niche
We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements --
transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture,
medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even
the key democratic institution of voting -- profoundly depend on science
and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one
understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We
might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible
mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.
The Demon-haunted World, 1996, p.26
An extraterrestrial being, newly arrived on Earth -- scrutinizing what we
mainly present to our children in television, radio, movies, newspapers,
magazines, the comics, and many books -- might easily conclude that we are
intent on teaching them murder, rape, cruelty, superstition, credulity, and
consumerism. We keep at it, and through constant repetition many of them
finally get it. What kind of society could we create if, instead, we drummed
into them science and a sense of hope?
The Demon-haunted World, 1996, p.39
The Lewis Thomas Niche
Social insects behave like the working parts of an immense central nervous
system: The termite colony is an enormous brain on millions of legs; the
individual termite is a mobile neuron. This would mean that there is such a
phenomenon as collective thinking, that goes on whenever sufficient
numbers of creatures are sufficiently connected to each other. It would also
mean that we humans could do the same trick if we tried, and perhaps we've
already done it, over and over again, in the making of language....
in Discover Magazine
Only two centuries ago, we could explain everything about everything, out
of pure reason, and now most of that elaborate and harmonious structure has
come apart before our eyes. We are dumb..... We have discovered how to
ask important questions, and now we really do need, as an urgent matter,
some answers. We now know that we cannot do this any longer by
searching our minds, for there is not enough there to search, nor can we find
the truth by guessing at it or by making up stories for ourselves. We cannot
stop where we are, stuck with today's level of understanding, nor can we go
back. I do not see that we have any real choice in this, for I can see only the
one way ahead. We need science, more and better science, not for its
technology, not for leisure, not even for health and longevity, but for the
hope of wisdom which our kind of culture must acquire for its survival.
The Medusa and the Snail(10)
1. Evolutionary biology encompasses perhaps 3,500 workers. The largest
neuroscience society has about 25,000 and that doesn't include many people
who identify themselves primarily with psychology or neurology-neurosurgery.
2. William H. Calvin, "The great climate flip-flop," The Atlantic Monthly
281(1):47-64 (January 1998). See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/1990s/1998AtlanticClimate.htm.
3. For example, Derek Bickerton and I aimed our book, Lingua ex machina:
Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (MIT Press, to appear
1999), at the people we were talking with at dinner every night, during a
month's stay at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Study and Conference
4. My second book, The Throwing Madonna (McGraw-Hill 1983) was a
collection of 17 essays, but none appeared separately. I wrote them as writing
exercises, rewriting the earlier ones when my style had improved. I had some
journalistic experience back before college, which was very helpful in
converting from a standard academic style into something more like my current
5. Kathryn Morton, "The Story-Telling Animal," New York Times Book
Review, pp.1-2 (23 December 1984).
6. William H. Calvin, The River that Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big
Bang to the Big Brain (Macmillan 1986).
7. Melvin Konner, in On Doctoring: Stories, Poems, Essays, edited by
Richard Reynolds and John Stone (Simon & Schuster, 1991).
8. Tom Stoppard, The Right Thing (Faber and Faber1982), p.53.
9. Loren Eiseley, The Star Thrower, p.202 (1978).
10. Lewis Thomas, The Medusa and the Snail (Viking, 1979), p.175.