H. Calvin, "Bookstore talk for A Brain for All Seasons."
Webbed Lecture Collection
[Pardon the abbreviations (to myself) here and there. It is adjustable in length.]
· Unlike science writers who are mostly journalists who find science increasingly fascinating, my books are more of an insiders view. I seldom venture very far away from my scientific research interests - brains, higher intellectual function more generally, evolutionary mechanisms, human evolution, abrupt aspects of climate change, sociobiology and the great apes, and some parts of linguistics. My friends keep joking about Baby Bells and Baby Bills, didn’t I want to be broken up into CalvinBrains.com, CalvinClimate.com, and so forth?
·But that would destroy what advantage, if any, that I have over the other practioneers of neurobiology, paleoclimate, linguistics and so forth. Lots of people do the individual parts better than I do. My only advantage is, in doing them all inside the same head. That’s in the hopes of carryover from one to another, in hopes of being able to spot the interdisciplinary patterns - like the meterologist Alfred Wegener who proposed continental drift at a time when no geologist or geographer would believe it. A lot of things fall between the cracks of our established scientific disciplines. And we multidisciplinary types try to feed on them.
·Organization of evening talk:
·Readers often want to know how you got hooked on writing - on the theory that it’s like other addictions, certainly gambling - so I thought that I’d begin with a little biographical background. And maybe survey the other ten books a little.
·Then I'll talk about the new book and refer you to the web page with all the pretty pictures that I'd show if this weren't a slide-free talk.
Statistics tell you very little.
·I’ve written 11 books in 22 years, but it isn’t really two years per book. In 1996 I had two books come out in the same week but that's because one publisher was very slow.
·Were my parents or grandparents writers? No, and indeed I’m the first ever to go to college. But there might nonetheless be some genes for writing books operating in my case. One of my two cousins on my mother’s side also is the only person on her side of the family to ever attend college. She too got a Ph.D. She too has written 11 books (I just caught up with her, once again).
·She and I both seem to have been afflicted with the salted peanuts syndrome: once you start, you can never get enough. And you never finish the can -- because writing, like all forms of research I suppose, always raises more questions than it answers.
It’s said that science is often about posing the question in such a way that you can force nature to give you a yes-or-no answer. Much of the skill of being a good writer consists of seeking out the illuminating questions. And there’s no end to that. I'm so addicted that I wouldn't trade my job for anyone else's, not even Paul Allen (and certainly not with Bill Gates, who has to endure a lot of insufferable people).
·I'm actually from Kansas (I learned my evolution after I moved to Seattle). I learned to write for general readers between the ages of 14 and 17, in high school near Kansas City - not because I had an ambition to write but just from the usual accidents of opportunity. I did a lot of sports photography and reporting, thanks to a great journalism teacher -- and then I had a great senior english teacher. College improved my knowledge of what to write about, not my writing per se.
·Sabbaticals are supposed to broaden your horizons - and indeed mine in
1978 as visiting professor of neurobiology at the Hebrew University of
Jerusalem stirred up some old interests in anthropology and archaeology.
But more than that, it created the time in which I could write my first
book. But I didn’t write it in
· THE ASCENT OF MIND (1990) is really the 2d half of Cerebral Symphony (1989), all the anthro and human evolution aspects, the first time that I wrote about abrupt climate change. Very influential in my career because Freeman Dyson read it. And liked it, and kept telling editors about it when asked for advise; it led to my invitations in 1993 from Scientific American and again in 1997 from the Atlantic Monthly.
·But in 1991, I had a good scientific idea about the darwinian
of brain circuits. I figured out the circuits that could turn the
Darwinian crank that improves the quality from generation to generation,
and how to do it in known brain circuitry. [If I’m ever remembered
for anything from my scientific work, it might be that.] THE
CEREBRAL CODE (1996) has since come out in
paperback and in German
translation. In the meantime, GAO and I redid our first book as Conversations
with Neil’s Brain 1994), and I wrote a popular book, How
Brains Think, that’s gotten a dozen translations.
·Finally I had time to work with the linguist Derek Bickerton on a book we’d been planning for four years on Chomsky’s problem of Universal Grammar and how the brain could do it - and how evolution could have gotten it started. That's Lingua ex Machina, now out in paperback and a Spanish translation. All the earlier books are now back in print in English; there was a while when you could only buy them new in Dutch or German. For some reason, my books are more popular in languages I cannot myself speak. At least it saves me from reading the book reviews.
·My 2002 book, A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, takes the 1998 Atlantic Monthly article and puts human evolution in the context of hundreds of such abrupt coolings in the last 2.5 mya. Here is part of the preface:
EVOLUTION from an apelike ancestor started about 5-6 million years ago.
This ancestor probably looked a lot like the modern bonobo and
chimpanzee, with which we share this common ancestor.
It probably had a pint-sized brain and only occasional upright
posture. We are, in a real
sense, the third chimpanzee species, the one that made a series of
The first departure
from this chimplike ancestor was probably some behavioral change – but
behavior doesn’t fossilize very well, and so the first change we can
observe in retrospect was that of the knees and hips.
They shifted toward our present form, well adapted to a lot of
two-legged locomotion. Then,
much later, when the ice ages began, toolmaking became common and the
brain began to enlarge and reorganize.
So the period of hominid evolution breaks neatly into two halves,
each several million years long: the period of adaptation to upright
posture (plus heavens knows what else), and the period of toolmaking and
brain enlargement (plus language and planning).
I’m one of the many
scientists who try to figure out what’s
behind an interesting correlation:
What did the ice ages have to do with ratcheting up our
ancestor’s brain size? Our
australopithecine ancestors, though they were walking upright, had an
ape-sized brain about 2.5 million years ago.
Ape brains probably hadn’t changed much in size for the prior 10
million years. But when the
ice ages began 2.5 million years ago, brain size started increasing –
not particularly in the other mammalian species, but at least in our
ancestors. About 120,000 years
ago, in the warm period that preceded our most recent ice age, modern type
Homo sapiens was probably walking around Africa with dark skin – and
sporting a brain that was three times larger than before the first ice age
chatters 2.5 million years ago.
Now, it’s not obvious
what ice, per se, has to do with brain size requirements.
Our ancestors would simply have lived closer to the tropics, were
it too cold elsewhere. And
it’s not that much colder in the tropics during an ice age (most of us
would likely rate it more comfortable).
Something about the ice ages probably stimulated the brain
enlargement, but neither average temperature nor average ice coverage seem
likely to be the stimulus.
Climate change is, of
course, a standard theme of archaeology, all those abandoned towns and
dried-up civilizations. Droughts
and the glacial pace of the ice ages surely played some role in prehuman
evolution, too, though it hasn’t been obvious why it affected our
ancestors so differently than the other great apes.
The reason for our brain enlargement, I suspect, is that each ice
age was accompanied, even in the tropics, by a series of whiplash climate
changes. Each had an abrupt
bust-and-boom episode – and that, not the ice, was probably what
rewarded some of the brain variants of those apes that had become adapted
to living in savannas.
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
(“Global warming’s evil twin”) – a catastrophe that could threaten
the end of civilization. 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
For a quarter century
global-warming theorists have predicted that climate creep was going to
occur and that we needed to prevent greenhouse gases from warming things
up, thereby raising the sea level, destroying habitats, intensifying
storms, and forcing agricultural rearrangements. Now we know that the most
catastrophic result of global warming could be an abrupt cooling and
But I want to give some flavor of the main body of the book, because it is written in the style of correspondence: E-mail to a university seminar group from a traveling professor, complete with pictures from the field.
someone asked by email, did Darwin really
discover? It probably isn’t
what you always thought.
It wasn’t evolution per se.
There had been an active public discussion of evolution since
before Darwin was born (his grandfather Erasmus even wrote poems on the
It wasn’t adaptations
to fit the environment, as the religious philosophers had already seized
on that idea as suggesting design from on high.
Nor was it “survival of the
fittest.” That idea had
been floated by Empedocles 2,500 years ago in ancient Greece, long before
Herbert Spencer, in the wake of Darwin, invented the phrase we now use.
It certainly wasn’t
the basic biological and geological facts that Darwin discovered, although
during his voyage around the world, and after discovering natural
selection, Darwin did add quite a bit in the factual line.
What Darwin contributed was an
idea, a way of making various disconnected pieces of the overall puzzle
fit together, something like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle without a
picture for a model. He
imagined the picture.
It wasn’t, however, the idea of descent from a common ancestor.
Diderot, Lamarck, and Erasmus Darwin had all speculated on that
subject two generations earlier. And
there were trees of descent around to serve as examples, given how by 1816
the linguists were claiming that most European languages had descended
from the same Indo-European root language.
By 1837 Darwin had concluded
that nature was always in the process of becoming something else,
though again there had been other attempts like Lamarck’s along this
line. Darwin just looked at
the biological facts in a different way than his predecessors and
contemporaries, not forcing them to fit the usual stories about how things
had come about. Fitting facts
to an idea is a primary way in which progress is made in science, but a
fit in one aspect has often blinded scientists to more overarching
But even that wasn’t his
main contribution. Charles
Darwin had an idea that supplied a mechanism, something to turn the crank
that transformed one thing into another.
Charles Darwin (in 1838 and, independently, Alfred Russel Wallace
in 1858) had a good idea about the process of evolution, how one
thing could turn into another without an intelligent designer supervising.
Out of all the variation thrown up with each generation (even
children of the same two parents can be quite unlike one another), some
variants fit the present environment better.
And so, in conditions where only a few offspring manage to reach
adulthood (both Wallace and Darwin got that insight from Malthus and his
emphasis on biological overproduction), there is a tendency for the
environment to affect which variants get their genes into the next
Many are called, few are
chosen by the hidden hand of what Darwin labeled “natural selection.”
The name comes from the contrast to animal breeding, so-called
“artificial selection.” It
is, as Ernst Mayr noted, an unfortunate term, as it suggests an agent
doing the natural selecting.
A few years
later, Darwin realized that he needed to add an “inheritance
principle,” to emphasize that the variations of the next generation were
preferentially done from the more successful of the current generation
(the individuals better suited to surviving the environment or finding
mates). This means, of
course, that the new variations were not just at random, but were centered
around the currently-successful model.
In other words, they were little jumps from a mobile starting
place, variations on a theme, not big jumps where the starting place
becomes irrelevant because the jump carries so far.
(Warning: Except for
the pros, half of the people who write about evolution, whether pro or
con, may be confused about this important short-distance randomness
Many variations, of course,
are not as good as the parents – nature appears not to worry about this
waste, to our distress – but a few variants are even better than their
parents. And so, with passing
generations, there is a chance for drift to occur towards the better
solutions to environmental and mate-finding challenges.
Perfection you don’t get, but occasionally you do get something
that, locally, could be called “progress“ – that ill-defined
something that makes us so impressed by the Darwinian process.
Nature can be seen to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, amidst
a huge waste in variations that go nowhere.
Then, from the rift valley in Kenya:
there are also hippos in the night (mama, papa, and junior, I was told at
breakfast by the cousin [BTW, this is a different cousin, who lived in
Kenya], who asked the watchman to wake her up when they
appeared). The watchmen here
usually chase the hippos away, at least when tourists aren’t awake to
Only 26 km west of here, up the Mau Escarpment, is Enkapune Ya Muto
rock shelter (“
A short boat ride away is
My cousin kept exclaiming over the obsidian, passing me one flake
after another. I kept saying,
after a brief inspection, that the proffered flake was probably not
archaeological, but merely happenstance.
Still, if you were in the objet trouvé
of tool use, this island would have been heaven, what with such
single-edged razorblades everywhere. Such
a place could have been where hominids discovered the virtues of sharp
edges and, when they exhausted the local supply, made the transition from
found-object tool use to Glynn Isaac’s shatter-and-search toolmaking.
The giraffes and the archaeologically-suggestive obsidian flakes
are surely the reason why most people visit
story told by the
Paradoxically, the Little Ice Age (roughly
1315-1865, when most of the world was generally about 1°C
cooler, thanks to one of those minor 1,500-year-long climate rhythms)
was a good time in
So, even in the absence of human modification of climate via fossil
fuels and cutting down forests, it looks as if Africa is subject to
episodes of prolonged (30, 65, and 80 years) drought
in otherwise good times. And
if you live elsewhere, don’t feel smug about your ancestors having had
the good sense to emigrate from
Droughts are often regional, such as the Dust Bowl
American Midwest and ...
We tend to concentrate on the downside of droughts because of all the human misery they cause. But an evolutionary biologist also looks at the recovery, because the transition is often a boom time. Things become possible in boom times that are difficult in the more static periods before and after the transition period.
And that recovery period is the main point of my theorizing about human origins. I think all terrestrial mammals suffered from the downsizings, but that our ancestors got some opportunities that the other great apes did not. Perhaps I will end with the two quotations that start the book:
The first is from the anthropologist, essayist, and poet LOREN EISELEY, from The Night Country, 1971:
specialty is the time when man was changing into man.
But, like a river that twists, evades, hesitates through slow
miles, and then leaps violently down over a succession of cataracts, man
can be called a crisis animal. Crisis
is the most powerful element in his definition. "
second is from the contemporary atmospheric scientist RICHARD B. ALLEY,
might think of the climate as a drunk:
When left alone, it sits; when forced to move, it staggers."
The six out-of-print books are now available in Authors Guild reprint editions
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