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The Authors Guild reprint edition is now available through amazon.com and other booksellers:

The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain

A book by
William H. Calvin
The Throwing Madonna:
Essays on the Brain
(McGraw-Hill 1983, Bantam 1991) is a group of 17 essays: The Throwing Madonna; The Lovable Cat: Mimicry Strikes Again; Woman the Toolmaker? Did Throwing Stones Lead to Bigger Brains? The Ratchets of Social Evolution; The Computer as Metaphor in Neurobiology; Last Year in Jerusalem; Computing Without Nerve Impulses; Aplysia, the Hare of the Ocean; Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology? What to Do About Tic Douloureux; Linguistics and the Brain's Buffer; The Woodrow Wilson Story; Thinking Clearly About Schizophrenia; Of Cancer Pain, Magic Bullets, and Humor; Linguistics and the Brain's Buffer; Probing Language Cortex: The Second Wave; and The Creation Myth, Updated: A Scenario for Humankind. Note that my throwing theory for language origins (last 3 essays) has nothing to do with the title essay: "The throwing madonna" essay is a parody (involving maternal heartbeat sounds!) on the typically-male theories of handedness.
AVAILABILITY is again good.  There are three editions, the 1983 McGraw-Hill, the 1991 Bantam reprint (slightly updated), and the 2001 reprint in the Author's Guild series, now available from amazon.com and other booksellers:

The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain

The Throwing Madonna
Essays on the Brain
Copyright 1983, 1991 by William H. Calvin.

You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).

Chapter List



Traditionally served up as a de rigueur melange of graceful acknowledgments with linked mea culpa, author's prejudices and bon mots, caveat emptor warnings to professional colleagues, and the usual succinct scintillating sentence summarizing the book, planted by the author in the hope that it will be picked up by an overworked book reviewer facing a deadline. Not to be missed.


1. The Throwing Madonna

Tracing right-handedness back through the centuries from the invention of writing to how mothers carry babies on the left side. With a brief digression on pacifying babies, as practiced by pediatric neurologists, and how the left-sided sound of the maternal heartbeat quiets infants. Did right-handedness all start with a mother with pacified infant, throwing stones with her right hand to hunt rabbits?

2 The Lovable Cat: Mimicry Strikes Again

As T S. Eliot intoned, "A CAT IS NOT A DOG.'As it is hardly a working animal, whatever caused the domestication of the cat? Perhaps it learned to mimic human babies, even though not looking anything like a baby? This chapter illustrates the 'instinct' level of brain organization, what Konrad Lorenz called innate action patterns and the stimuli which trigger them. A tale of evolution, nonpoisonous snakes impersonating poisonous ones, and what prompts people to respond to a cuddly baby. The reader is prompted to perform a similar ethological analysis of the dog's success in pleasing people.

3 Woman the Toolmaker?

The usual presumption is that the first human tool-users were male, but it certainly isn't turning out that way as ethologists study primates in their natural habitats: the starring roles usually seem to be played by females. Chimpanzees crack open nuts using rock hammers-- and with considerable foresight and sophistication. But the males only engage in the simplest kinds of shell cracking, with females practicing the two more sophisticated techniques and flaking stones in the process. And even termite fishing, that classic example of chimpanzee toolmaking, turns out to be largely a female preoccupation.

4 Did Throwing Stones Lead to Bigger Brains?

The hominid brain has enlarged threefold in the last few million years and, along the way, acquired specializations for language, handedness, and even music. What were the selection pressures which shaped this rapid evolution? An examination of one-handed throwing of stones at prey and how this cultural practice could have led to the enlargement of the brain-and provided the foundations for language cortex.

5 The Ratchets of Social Evolution

A possible origin for empathy lies in the skills used for sizing up another person, as when bargaining in an oriental bazaar. The human brain has a special area for recognizing faces, even for evaluating the emotions revealed in another person's facial expressions. Which presumably proved useful in detecting when another was going to cheat rather than cooperate. But the evolution of cooperation itself is much harder to understand, because it requires that an animal forgo immediate advantage for a chancy long-term gain. Now Axelrod and Hamilton have shown, using game theory, a simple 'tit for tat' limited cooperation strategy that could have evolved even in a world of me-first types: it relies strongly upon recognizing others as individuals. Is this the origin of cooperation?


6 The Computer as Metaphor in Neurobiology

What will happen in some future year when an ancient computer is dug up by an archaeologist, but the instruction manual is missing? An introduction to how neurobiologists investigate the brain and its hierarchies-and some cautions about 'the physicist's fallacy.'

7 Last Year in Jerusalem

A real summit meeting of neurobiologists-atop Mount Scopus, with alternating views of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. With expeditions to the mine fields of the Golan Heights in search of the elusive leech, to the depths of the Red Sea to see the molluscan "Spanish Dancer"-and then the true hazards (Thanksgiving viruses and Christmas bureaucracies).

8 Computing Without Nerve Impulses

Over 99 percent of the nerve cells in the eyes reading this sentence are functioning without using nerve impulses. Yet the nerve impulse (a stereotyped voltage 'spike' set off when a threshold voltage is exceeded, rather like pulling the trigger on a gun) has engrained our thinking about the way nerve cells compute for over a hundred years. The new view of the common currency of the nerve cell: variable volts, not unlike the variable balance of a bank account.

9 Aplysia, the Hare of the Ocean

The secret of this seagoing slug's success is that it tastes bad, its major known predator is the neurobiologist, who prizes it for the knowledge its small brain yields about learning. A classic neurobiology story, analogous to studying small-town sociology where everyone knows one another rather than anonymous big city masses. It explores how the interconnections between nerve cells change with learning.

10 Left Brain, Right Brain: Science or the New Phrenology?

Does the vocal left brain dominate the poor artistic right brain? Or does the popularization of left-brain dominance involve the "worst kind of mixed metaphor, the kind that mixes up metaphor with reality"? An examination of lateralization and a modest proposal for a splashy new best-seller guaranteed to make the book clubs salivate: Cooking on the Right Side of the Brain, for the new holistic school of cooking which avoids mixing ingredients in sequential order (left brain, an obvious no-no) by dumping everything into the mixing bowl simultaneously.


11. What to Do About Tic Douloureux

Tic douloureux is a benign disorder producing excruciating lightninglike pains in the face. Yet unlike most chronic pains, it is almost always curable. Told as a medical detective story, this is a tale resplendent with the classic clues of the mystery thriller.

12 The Woodrow Wilson Story

From dyslexic child to university professor, from university president to governor and then president of the United States. But between being a Princeton professor and the president who attempted to shape the Paris peace conference and the League of Nations, he suffered one stroke after another-and seemingly recovered from them all. But the gradual personality changes apparent before Paris were dramatically augmented by the influenza attack which interrupted the conference, and President Wilson was never the same thereafter. His major stroke five months later, while he attempted to persuade the Senate to ratify the treaty, left him not merely paralyzed on his left side, but unable to understand that he was disabled. Even if the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had been in effect then, it seems unlikely that the Cabinet could have declared him disabled because Wilson would have fired them first, just as he actually fired his secretary of state for discussing the disability with the Cabinet.

13 Thinking Clearly About Schizophrenia

One thing that schizophrenia isn't: it isn't split personalities like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is a disease of young adults, largely inherited, which is often characterized by hallucinations which the sufferer may have difficulty distinguishing from reality. But until we understand nighttime dreams better, we are unlikely to fully appreciate how the brain normally maintains our grip on reality.

14 Of Cancer Pain, Magic Bullets, and Humor

The evolutionary usefulness of pain following injury is examined. But evolution has not effectively protected us from useless pain: the pain of otherwise harmless neuralgias, the pain of cancer. A progress report on pain clinics, peptide hormones, research teams, and the sorry state of research funds.


15 Linguistics and the Brain's Buffer

Does language make use of the same 'holding buffer' neural circuits as does the rapid motor sequencer evolved for rock throwing? When rearranging a complicated sentence into the deep linguistic structure emphasizing actor-action-object, are we making use of primitive throwing circuits? A short excursion into linguistics, that meeting ground of the humanities and the natural sciences.

16 Probing Language Cortex: The Second Wave

Working from the bottom up, neurobiology focuses on membranes, nerve cells, circuits, modular collections of circuits exemplified by the hypercolumn-but then what next? Working from the top down, we can distinguish linguistics, instinct and memory, hemispheric organization, cortical maps, but then . . . ? How do modular super-hypercolumns generate grammar, store the word 'rabbit,'recognize a fuzzy animal as a rabbit, pronounce the word 'rabbit'-or set about throwing a stone at a rabbit? What are the in-between levels of the hierarchy of the brain? An examination of the natural physiological subdivisions of language specializations of the human brain, together with male/female and IQ differences. The history of language physiology seems increasingly reductionistic as quite specialized patches of cerebral cortex are discovered, but they all surely work together in a committee-if we can only figure out how. And now there is some information on how they are orchestrated.


17 The Creation Myth, Updated: A Scenario for Humankind

Every culture has its own creation myth relating the origins of humankind, invariably starring its own people, and the scientific culture is no exception. Neoteny, that phylogenetic trend which makes adults look more and more like juveniles, says something about possible genetic mechanisms. But the original problem, way back before brains started enlarging, was that there were not enough babies to comfortably maintain the population level. The solution to this problem of ecological economics involved upright posture and carrying, pair-bonding and nonprocreative sex. From this ancestor, somewhat different from modern-day great apes, the great brain boom began. A speculative scenario for our ancestors, but, unlike our usual creation myth with the unusually clever in the starring roll, it suggests that our intelligence was an offshoot of a more mundane development in hunting and hammering .

Endnotes and Bibliography

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The Authors Guild reprint edition is now available through amazon.com and other booksellers:

The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain

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