William H. Calvin
Katherine Graubard

1543 - 17th Avenue East
206 328.1192
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Graubard @ U. Washington.edu and web page

December 2002


     Compared to 2000 and 2001, we stayed home this year.  No trips abroad, no vacation.  But a very nice year.

     A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change was published in April by the University of Chicago Press, which occasioned a certain amount of radio interviews and powerpoint lectures.  I introduced topics from the new book at the Salk Institute in early March ("The hunting pumps" slides and streaming-video for those with broadband internet) and at Harvard in late March ("The 50,000-year Bloom:  Did Syntax Emerge Then, or Did All of Higher Intellectual Functions?").

     Spring Quarter, however, was when Katherine taught an intensive lab course up at the UW's Friday Harbor Labs on San Juan Island, together with her senior postdoc, Andy Christie.  And so I worked up there, again in the lovely Whiteley Center writers' refuge, for most of the ten weeks, commuting back to Seattle to give talks.  I don't have a picture of the unusual breakfast table in our scenic apartment in the woods:  Katherine and I sitting across the table from each other, each drinking coffee and reading the New York Times on a laptop (one Mac, one IBM), each with a wireless internet connection.  The wilderness isn't what it used to be.

     Katherine's parents came out to Seattle for the summer, just about the time that we hauled everything home from Friday Harbor.  They are spending half the year in Seattle, returning to Palm Beach for November to May.  They now have an apartment at Horizon House in Seattle.  That's where Agnes, my mother, lives; she is doing well at 91, reading a lot though not getting out much.  We had nice visits with Christine Phillips and Don Burns, Leslie Kazon, Susan Rifkin, Michael Graubard, and Peter Kazon.  Local friends are doing well, though the breakfast group has shrunken (Beth Loftus moved to UCI, Dutch Schultz can't drive anymore).

     Things got busy again in the autumn, what with the neuroscience meetings being in Orlando.  I went to a human evolution meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Labs on Long Island ("Abrupt climate change creates a crash-boom-boom cycle in hominid (but not ape) evolution." ), then joined Katherine in Orlando on the second day of the meetings.  Afterward, we spent some time with Katherine's parents in Palm Beach.  I had to come back to Seattle for four days (and give three lectures, e.g., UW on the Brain) before going again to the Salk Institute in La Jolla for a weekend meeting in mid-November.

     The nice surprise was a trip we both made to Washington DC in early December, the occasion being the Phi Beta Kappa book award for science.  (Here's my "Shocks and Instability" speech).  We saw a number of old friends in DC, both by design and by chance, and a lot of art.

     Coming up in January is a PBS series on human evolution in which I make a brief climate-related appearance.  And in the making is a major PBS series on climate, for which I get filmed in January up in BC.

Best to all,

     Katherine & Bill



Katherine's undergraduate neurobiology research course


Katherine's students show off their work.

Sunset behind ferry in San Juans, April 2002


There are lots more photos; I have created a photo gallery slide show from my travels and portraits (I have been rediscovering photography).



There was a dizzying (to me), wonderfully literate appreciation of the new book in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Autumn 2002), reprinted below:

"There is something dizzying about William Calvin's books.  Enormous erudition is displayed, with an effortless artistry that blends idiosyncrasy and digression with wit, insight, and dramatic impact.  He mixes very difficult and momentous topics with simple momentary observations, placing his enormous subjects into a personal, humanistic, and conversational perspective.  A lot of rough edges and uncertainties are neglected in his presentation of controversial topics.  This permits speculation to achieve a maximal impact.  Generally, Calvin's instincts for the truth appear to be very acute and his understanding of the available data on a wide variety of subjects is remarkable.  There is little doubt that exciting interest in the enormous social and evolutionary impact of weather is just the right thing to be doing at this point in the history of the world. In the process he awakens interest in so many subjects-ethnographic, paleontological, neurological, genetic, sociological, and so on.  So long as one appreciates that this is a speculative synthesis, it is possible very safely to enjoy the brilliance and scope of the exposition, which is amusing, alarming, reassuring, and awe inspiring by turns.  It is as if the reader is partaking of a conversation with a brilliant and well informed friend who is so full of ideas that no one else can get a word in edgewise."

There is a nice long interview with me in this book (text at "Bill Calvin's Brainstorm,").

The playful chair by Jake Cress ("I make sawdust") at the Renwick Gallery in DC (it looks even more animated as you walk around it).


Katherine, Blanche Graubard, Leslie Kazon (the NY cousin, also center below), Sy Graubard, Bill (July 2002)

Agnes (minus ever-present book, June 2002 KM)

A farewell party for Beth Loftus in our kitchen.

Katherine and her London cousin Susan Rifkin, offshore of FHL, en route to the July low tide (below).

Beach walk at low tide for Friends of the FHL.

Thanksgiving at the Doig's, and the view.


Friday Harbor Labs
San Juan Island, Washington USA

Dear John,

Hello from Paradise.  I've been working in my study in the Whiteley Center here at the UW's Friday Harbor Labs.  It's a get-away-to-finish-the-book sort of place.  Unlike the Rockefeller Foundation's similar place in Bellagio, Italy, this retreat is attached to a working marine lab that lives to the rhythms of the tides.  Katherine has been teaching a research course for undergraduates up here.  It gives them ten intensive weeks of a research project on small neural circuits.  When I want a break, I spend a day out on the lab's trawler, as the students collect crabs.

The Whiteley Center is also unlike Bellagio in that it is on a large nature preserve, not a manicured Alpine hillside.  Upon hearing of Steve Gould's demise, Katherine and I were reminiscing about the dinner we had with Steve a few years ago at Bellagio, balancing plates on our laps at the lake shore as the sun set, talking about our mutual interests in evolution and our writerly habits.  Oddly enough, Katherine and I had had lunch earlier that day with Susan Sontag.  We'd talked about her surviving the constant shelling in Sarajevo, not about the years of chemotherapy she wrote about in Illness as Metaphor.

And so after dinner, on the long hike back up the hill to the Villa Serbelloni, Katherine and I marveled that here we had not one but two long-term cancer survivors, each of whom had already gotten 15-20 years of extra life after a grim prognosis.  Not only survival, but just look at all the extra books that each had been able to write, thanks to catching cancer in time and having an effective treatment.  

Reading Steve's early essays and his first big research book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, was what got me to reading more broadly about evolution.  One of his important contributions as a paleontologist was to convince us that there are long periods in evolution where a species really doesn't change very much. Darwinian gradualism doesn't necessarily guarantee a steady course of improvements. Then there are periods when, no longer stuck in a rut, things progress considerably faster.

Both of my main interests in evolution—the evolution of the big brain in only several million years, and the use of the Darwinian process in the brain to improve the quality of the next sentence you speak—involve the search for speedy ways of evolving things. I tuned right into what Steve was saying.

I tried to distill a set of essential ingredients for a universal Darwinian process, one that could operate in brain circuitry in mere seconds, as you figured out what to say next. I got Steve to take a look at my five essentials: a pattern that is copied with variations, where populations of the variants compete for a workspace, much like crabgrass and bluegrass compete for our backyard in Seattle. Then (and this is what Darwin called "natural selection") there was a multifaceted environment that allowed one variant to do better than the other. (How often you cut the grass, water it, fertilize it, freeze it, and walk on it. In our environmental mixture, crabgrass is winning.)

Steve put on his glasses and looked at my list. "You probably need an inheritance principle," he said shortly. "It's something Darwin missed at first and added later." Darwin's inheritance principle means that those juveniles who best survive childhood and find mates are the ones who generate the next round of little variations. Most will prove no better than their parents, but some will "fit" the challenges of the local environment even better than their parents.

If the random variations are big, their starting point isn't remembered. But they're usually small, and that's what makes for local "progress," what makes evolution's creativity so impressive to us. Subtract any one of the six essentials, and things just wander without any direction.

Steve's demise reminds me of that fourfold hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. In science, getting raw data is hard enough. Then you have to refine it: information is "data that makes a difference." Some of it yields knowledge of how things really work. But turning knowledge into wisdom is the most difficult step, not often accomplished. You need a lot of knowledge stored in your head that can simmer for awhile. In some fields of intellectual endeavor, especially history and the historical sciences, creative people get better as they get older. The near-doubling of the average human lifespan in some countries has meant a lot in terms of being able to successfully turn knowledge into wisdom.

Steve was only 60, with lots of knowledge cooking. And here we all hoped that Steve would turn out to be like that grand old man of evolution, Ernst Mayr, who is still busy writing important books at age 97.  Sigh.

My Whiteley Center fireplace was handy for the cool mornings of April, when I was mostly preparing talks about A Brain for All Seasons—some about the human evolution bits, others about the implications of all those abrupt climate changes for evolution and ecology more generally.  Now with the summer breezes, I am settling into trying to reconstruct the stages in cognitive evolution for the next book, A Brief History of Mind.  Unlike the four previous summers, no one has organized a compelling meeting somewhere that I must attend during the really nice months in the Pacific Northwest.  So I'm sensibly sticking close to Seattle.

Hello to all,


A speech to the Friday Harbor Laboratories Developmental Advisory Board [we are both members], May 3, 2002, presenting a book to Arthur Whiteley:


Back before the Whiteley Center existed, I had to go all of the way to Italy for an intensive month-long collaboration with a linguist co-author.  The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center has been providing such scholarly facilities for fifty years and they have a wonderful library to show for it, packed with books that have been written there.

      In fifty years, I dare say that the Whiteley Center’s bookshelves will have long been filled with books written in the studies.  It gives me great pleasure to present Arthur Whiteley with the first installment on this collection, my new book A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change from the University of Chicago Press.  It was extensively rewritten in two long sessions at the Whiteley Center in 2000 and 2001.  I don’t know if you’ll be reminded of the Whiteley Center’s flickering fireplace and long table filled with rearranged manuscript pages as you read the book, but I certainly am.

      Thank you once again, Arthur, for having the vision to create this lovely place.

William H. Calvin
May 3, 2002