posted 11 June 2004

2004 bio
(written for the Foundation for the Future)

William H. Calvin 
it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)       
 University of Washington



The one-minute self-intro speech

I’m a neurobiologist. What I focus on is how you avoid speaking incoherent nonsense – how your brain creates ever more coherent arrangements of ideas in the several seconds before you speak. But I’m also fascinated by why such quality bootstraps evolved in the last few million years and so I write books like A Brief History of the Mind: From apes to intellect and beyond.

When evolution is rapid, climate changes are usually part of the push, and so for the last 20 years I’ve been paying a lot of attention to paleoclimate studies. It turns out that the glacially-slow ice ages are punctuated with hundreds of flips that are abrupt – big changes like drought everywhere, and in only several years – flipping back a few centuries later.

Thanks to Freeman Dyson, I was asked to write a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly called "The great climate flip-flop." That came out six years ago, just in time to compete with sex in the oval office. And 1998 was a time when no one had yet heard much about what’s currently in the news (and disaster movies). The effect of the flips on human evolution is what my previous book was about, A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change. It won the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Science.

Apropos our topic today, I’ve recently been writing about how we need to create a shored-up civilization that can quickly bounce back from any of a number of abrupt shocks, whether from terrorist contamination of major cities, economic crashes, pandemics, or major drought.

A few weeks ago, I spoke at Cornell at a conference about scientists writing for general readers. I had some long talks there with Robert Krulwich from ABC News and the new NOVA venture, which helped to warm me up for this meeting.


  1. One page, narrative style, current biography

William H. Calvin, Ph.D.  I am a theoretical neurobiologist, Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.  I’m also affiliated with Emory University's great apes project and on the Board of Advisors to the Foundation for the Future.

By now I have written a dozen books for general readers.   My occasional magazine articles include “The emergence of intelligence” for Scientific American (1994) and “The fate of the soul” for Natural History (June 2004).  My 1998 cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, "The great climate flip-flop," grew out of my long-standing interest in abrupt climate change and how it influenced the evolution of a chimpanzeelike brain into a more human one.  Together, they are the topic of my 2002 book, A Brain for All Seasons:  Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change; it won the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Science.

A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond from Oxford University Press (2004) addresses what led up to the “Mind’s Big Bang” about 50,000 years ago, a creative explosion compared to the very conservative trends in toolmaking over the previous 2.5 million years.  That span featured two million-year-long periods without much progress despite the growth in brain size.  Not only was the brain increase apparently driven by something invisible to archaeology  (perhaps cooperation, protolanguage, or throwing accuracy), but if bigger brains were capable of being more clever, it didn’t carry over to toolmaking.  The other big puzzle is that our species, Homo sapiens, big brain and all, was around for perhaps 100,000 years without doing too much that was different from their predecessors and from Neanderthals.  Our big brain may (or may not) be essential for our higher intellectual functions (creative structured thought), but it sure isn’t sufficient.

My neurobiology research interests primarily concern the neocortical circuits used for detailed planning and for improving the quality of the plan as you “get set,” presumably utilizing a milliseconds-to-minutes version of the same Darwinian process (copying competitions biased by natural selection) seen in the immune response and species evolution on longer time scales.  My research monograph, The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (MIT Press, 1996) concerns darwinian processes in neural circuitry that can operate on the time scale of thought and action to resolve ambiguity and shape up novel courses of action.  My language book, a collaboration with the linguist Derek Bickerton, is about the evolution of syntax, Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (MIT Press, 2000).  

I started out in physics at Northwestern University, then branched out into neurophysiology via studies at MIT, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Washington (Ph.D., Physiology & Biophysics, 1966). I’ve had a long association with academic neurosurgeons and psychiatrists without ever having had to treat a patient.  Lately I hang out with paleoanthropologists and evolutionary biologists.


Your most current bibliography

Books by William H. Calvin

A Brief History of the Mind (2004)

A Brain for All Seasons (2002)

Lingua ex Machina* (2000)

The Cerebral Code (1996)

How Brains Think (1996)

Conversations with Neil’s Brain** (1994)

How the Shaman Stole the Moon (1991)

The Ascent of Mind (1990)

The Cerebral Symphony (1989)

The River That Flows Uphill (1986)

The Throwing Madonna (1983, 1991)

Inside the Brain** (1980)

   *with Derek Bickerton

 **with George A. Ojemann


Articles by William H. Calvin (partial list, last decade only, all webbed)

Calvin, W. H. (1993).  Cautions on the superhuman transition.  Whole Earth Review 81:96-98.

Calvin, W. H. (1994).  The emergence of intelligenceScientific American 271(4):100-107 (October; special issue Life in the Universe; reprinted in a Scientific American book of the same name, 1995, 1998).  Audio tape, 1998. 

Calvin, W. H. (1995).  Cortical columns, modules, and Hebbian cell assemblies.  In:  The Handbook of Brain Theory and Neural Networks, edited by Michael A. Arbib (Bradford Books/MIT Press), pp. 269-272.

Calvin, W. H. (1995).  How to think what no one has ever thought before.  In How Things Are:  A Science Tool-Kit for the Mind, edited by John Brockman and Katinka Matson (William Morrow), pp. 151-164. 

Calvin, W. H. (1997).  Book review of Terrence W. Deacon’s The Symbolic Species in The New York Times Book Review (August 10). 

Calvin, W. H. (1997).  The Six Essentials? Minimal Requirements for the Darwinian Bootstrapping of Quality.  Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1, at

Calvin, W. H. (1998).  “To make sure that things go on,”  Whole Earth Review .

Calvin, W. H. (1998).   "The great climate flip-flop," The Atlantic Monthly 281(1):47-64. 

Calvin, W. H. (1998).  Competing for consciousness: A Darwinian mechanism at an appropriate level of explanationJournal of Consciousness Studies.  5(4):389-404.

Calvin, W. H. (1999).  Cortical columns and modulesMIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, (Bradford Books/MIT Press).

Calvin, W. H. (1999).  Ephemeral Levels of Mental Organization:  Darwinian Competitions as a Basis for Consciousness.  Toward a Science of Consciousness: The Third Tucson Discussions and Debates (Stuart Hameroff, Al Kaszniak and David Chalmers, editors), MIT Press, chapter 25, pp.297-308.

Calvin, W. H. (1999).  “What creativity in science and art tell us about how the brain must work,” in Einstein meets Magritte:  an international reflection on science, nature, human action, and society.  Kluver Scientific Publications.

Calvin, W. H. (1999).  Book review of Antonio R.  Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens in The New York Times Book Review (October 24). 

Calvin, W. H. (1999).   “Par-delŕ les scissures et les sillons,” La Recherche issue “Le cerveau d'Einstein,” 326:42-43 (December 1999).  English version “Einstein’s Brain.”

Calvin, William H.  (2000).  “Computers as Modelers of Climate,” in The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2,000 Years (John Brockman, editor), Simon & Schuster, pp.  86-88.

Loftus, Elizabeth F., and William H. Calvin (March-April 2001).  Memory’s futurePsychology Today.

Calvin, William H. (2001), "Abrupt Climate Jumps and the Evolution of Higher Intellectual Functions during the Ice Ages," chapter for R. J. Sternberg, ed., The Evolution of Intelligence (Erlbaum), pp. 97-115.

Calvin, William (2002).  “My synapses, myself,” book review of Joseph LeDoux’s Synaptic Self in Nature 417, 691 - 692 (June 13). 

Calvin, W. H. (2002).  Rediscovery and the cognitive aspects of toolmaking: Lessons from the handaxe.  Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  25(3):403-404.

Calvin, William (2003).  Book review of Adam Zeman’s Consciousness: A User’s Guide in the New York Times (28 September 2003). 

Calvin, William (2004).  The fate of the soul Natural History (June 2004).  

Calvin, William H. (2004), "Gott neu erfinden,” chapter for Tobias Daniel Wabbel, ed., Im Anfang war (k)ein Gott (Patmos, Dusseldorf, 2004), pp. 175-185.   See also for the original English, “Reinventing God.”


So I would include a fair amount about resilience to sudden blows, see my website at 2004-03-25 climate.htm.


The Virtual Index for my books and articles,
far better than my printed index in most cases:

And my favorite source for looking up
 other authors' books (and who has quoted them):

In Association with

A Brief History
 of the Mind, 2004

click to order from
A Brain for All Seasons

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Lingua ex Machina

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The Cerebral Code

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How Brains Think

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Conversations with
Neil's Brain