William H. Calvin
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The cover for the January 1998 issue of THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
copyright ©1997

William H. Calvin
and The Atlantic Monthly
"The Great Climate Flip-flop" is the cover story for the January 1998 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. If you're not fortunate enough to have your very own hard copy, you can find the full text in three different virtual places: If you just need the link-filled bibliography, my climate page at http://WilliamCalvin.com/climate provides a lot of starting points for further reading (as well as an explanation of how I came to write the article).
I've now posted my replies to the various letters to the editor.

WHOI's up-to-date Abrupt Climate Change references.


My new book on paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, and considerations from neurobiology and evolutionary biology is:

Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
William H. Calvin

which will be out in Spring 2002 from the University of Chicago Press.  It is already posted full-text on the web  and also in Palm download format, for reading on the commute.  It's about what sudden climate flips did to human evolution over the last 2.5 million years.  It includes the climate history and flip mechanisms that I described in The Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop" and covers the paleoanthropology as well. 

Editor's Column

ALTHOUGH William H. Calvin, the author of this month's cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop," says that he is "not primarily an author," readers would be forgiven for assuming that he does nothing but write. A theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington at Seattle, Calvin has written nine books, including five in the past seven years and two (How Brains Think and The Cerebral Code) just last year. But he also maintains a punishingly busy schedule as a researcher, investigating how brains work and evolve, and travels extensively on the lecture circuit. Readers would therefore also be forgiven for wondering why Calvin devotes so much of his precious time to following the study of climate change.
      The answer, Calvin says, is that the evolution of the human mind is intimately linked to abrupt climate change: our brains seem to have begun their transformation from apelike to fully human just when temperatures on earth began their current trend of jumping rapidly -- often within a single lifetime -- between warm and cold. Calvin argues that in the context of brief environmental opportunities (periods of warmth) and hazards (sudden icy temperatures), survival for our ancestors became dependent on having highly agile, "jack-of-all-trades" minds. The flip-flop of climates, in other words, led to the evolution of brains that could themselves flip-flop abruptly between strategies for survival. In describing the minds that we have ended up with, Calvin is fond of referring to a passage by William James that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in October, 1880. "Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another," James wrote,

we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rarefied abstractions and discriminations, the most unheardof combinations ... we seem suddenly introduced into a seething caldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.
      Creative thinking is now more important than ever. A central point in "The Great Climate Flip-flop" is that the greenhouse gases we pump daily into the atmosphere may well trigger an abrupt global cooling. But if we have helped to bring on such a problem, we are also the only creatures on the planet with brains highly enough evolved to solve it -- and solve it we must, even if, as Calvin points out, it won't make our brains any larger. -THE EDITORS

William H. Calvin ("The Great Climate Flip-flop") is a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington at Seattle.

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