My 2004 Summer Postcard at

William H. Calvin

Friday Harbor Labs, San Juan Island, Washington USA

Hi John,

     I just bought a serious telephoto, and have started working on portraits of the great apes.  No, there are no young female bonobos practicing tool use up in the San Juans.  This one is at the San Diego Zoo, photographed when I was down for the human evolution meeting.

     What goes on up here at The Labs is marine biology, where students learn to appreciate what the dredge brings up from the muddy bottom.  Then too, people like me may mostly write books or invent new lectures on the precursors of the "modern" mind.

    We all assume that bigger brains are better, yet our ancestors went through several million-year-long periods when toolmaking techniques didn't improve, despite a lot of brain size increase.  Even after our species was walking around Africa 162,000 years ago, we spent the next 100,000 years doing more of the same.

    The burst of creativity (since maybe 75,000 to 50,000 years ago) is what we moderns associate with intelligence and our kind of consciousness.  And clearly, this is NOT what the 2.5 million year bigger-brain slog was all about.  If those ancestors were getting better and better (maybe for something that doesn't show in the archeological record such as short-sentence protolanguage or more extensive sharing), it sure didn't feed back to improve toolmaking, long-distance trade, or even using bone as raw material for toolmaking -- surely the handy-to-hand raw material at any campsite.

     No, as I watch the meteor showers in the clear skies away from city lights and think about thought, I reflect on how recent it must be to think complicated thoughts.  If you can't speak sentences of more than 2-3 words at a time without them all blending together like a summer drink, you likely cannot think complicated thoughts either -- where you also have to resolve the ambiguities and improve the quality of the ensemble offline.  That takes an ability to structure thoughts, what you also need to speak long sentences or recursively nest clauses.  ("I think I saw him leave to go home.")  And without quality bootstrapping aiding structuring, you can't be a poet who creates ensembles where every word resonates with the rest, just so.