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Evolving Intelligence,
Then and Now

copyright ©1996 by
William H. Calvin

A Science Masters book
(BasicBooks in the US; UK edition, German, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Chinese, Korean, and Hungarian translations now out; to be available in three additional translations).


If you’re good at finding the one right answer to life’s multiple-choice questions, you’re smart. But intelligence is what you need when contemplating the leftovers in the refrigerator, trying to figure out what might go with them. Or if trying to speak a sentence that you’ve never spoken before. As Jean Piaget used to say, intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do, when all the standard answers are inadequate.
     Evolving something new “on the fly” involves a lot of creative trial-and-error inside the brain, mostly in the last second before speaking aloud. Starting from themes as disjointed and unrealistic as those of a dream, you make something of quality out of the subconscious morass. How?
    This book tries to fathom how our inner life evolves from one second to the next, as we steer ourselves from one topic to another, as we create and reject alternatives. It’s not just a little person inside the head doing all this, though it’s natural to assume that anything fancy requires an even fancier designer. Ever since Darwin, however, we’ve known that elegant things can also emerge (indeed, self organize) from simpler beginnings.
    And, says theoretical neurophysiologist William H. Calvin, the bootstrapping of new ideas works much like the immune response or the evolution of a new animal species — except that the brain can turn the darwinian crank a lot faster,
on the time scale of thought and action. Few proposals achieve a Perfect Ten when judged against our memories, but we can subconsciously try out variations, using many brain regions. Eventually, as quality improves, we become conscious of our new invention.
    Drawing on anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, and the neurosciences, Calvin also considers how a more intelligent brain evolved using slow biological improvements in the last few million years. Back then, evolving jack-of-all-trades versatility was encouraged by abrupt climate changes. Now, evolving intelligence uses a nonbiological track: augmenting human intelligence and building intelligent machines. In his concluding chapter, Calvin cautions about arms races in intelligence. Just as the Red Queen explained to Alice in Wonderland, you might have to keep running to stay in the same place.

William H. Calvin is a theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of nine books, including The Cerebral Code, The River that Flows Uphill, and, with the neurosurgeon George A. Ojemann, Conversations with Neil’s Brain.

Author photo by
Doug vanderHoof

HOW BRAINS THINK expands on my October 1994 Scientific American article to address the evolution of consciousness, intelligence, and language. The parallel 1996 book is The Cerebral Code from MIT Press; though not as well suited for the general reader as the present book, those interested in the neural circuitry of the brain needed to run a darwinian process may wish to look at The Cerebral Code if Chapters 6 and 7 of the present book aren’t enough.
Here's the excerpt that appeared at HMS Beagle.
This isn't an IQ book; I'd recommend Earl Hunt's article "The role of intelligence in modern society."
HOW BRAINS THINK was on both the London and the Washington DC science bestseller lists of New Scientist (May 1997). At Amazon.com, it was #29 of 100 Bestsellers for 1996.

All rights reserved. Except for brief excerpts and personal photocopying of a single chapter, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form (including information storage and retrieval, photocopying, and recording) without permission from the publisher.

(Hardcover, US$20; ISBN 0-465-07277-1)
(Softcover US$12, ISBN 0-465-07278-X)


"[HOW BRAINS THINK], part of the Science Masters series, offers an exquisite distillation of his key ideas. He's a member of that rare breed of scientists who can translate the arcana of their fields into lay language, and he's one of the best. There are other, competing theories for explaining consciousness. But Mr. Calvin, so lyrical and imaginative in his presentation, draws you into his world of neural Darwinism and inspires you to read more."

"Nothing in showbiz right now is as thrilling as the debate surrounding consciousness. Darwinism decentred the body. The new debate is scarier: it decentres the mind. This goes down badly at dinner parties. Quote, say, Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained over dinner, within seconds your guests will have worked themselves up into an orgy about light bulbs having souls or Psion organisers writing Shakespeare.
      Do not despair: William Calvin's How Brains Think will quickly ease your blood pressure.... This is a valuable introduction to the consciousness debate--a clever, exuberant work. It assumes no knowledge and pulls no punches. Nail it to the foreheads of dissenting dinner guests."

"Calvin is fizzing with ideas and this is a provacative, stimulating book."
-- Sunday Times (London)

"This book sets out what we know about our brains with remarkable skill."

-- Financial Times (London)
"Challenging and rewarding. As always, Calvin's thinking about thinking gives plenty of food for thought."
--Kirkus Reviews
"Still partially a mystery, intelligence's nature (and manifestation in language) gets a consummately clear summary in Calvin's hands."

Chapter List

1.    What to Do Next
2.    Evolving a Good Guess
3.    The Janitor’s Dream
4.    Evolving Intelligent Animals
5.    Syntax as a Foundation of Intelligence
6.    Evolution on-the-fly
7.    Shaping Up an Intelligent Act from Humble Origins
8.    Prospects for a Superhuman Intelligence

       Recommended reading
       End notes

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL: There are now animated illustrations for the spatiotemporal patterns.

INSTRUCTORS: The glossary of The Cerebral Code will also be useful when reading this book. You can create hypertext links to glossary items on your own web pages via
<a href=http://www.williamcalvin.com/bk9gloss.html#neuron>Neuron</a>

If you would like to see a translation for your language, alert a relevant publisher and point them toward my literary agent:

Brockman, Inc., 5 East 59th Street, New York NY 10022 USA.
fax +1(212)935-5535 ....... e-mail rights@brockman.com

Dedicated to my late futurist friend,
Thomas F. Mandel (1946-1995)
whose memes live on.


Helpful discussions with Derek Bickerton, Iain Davidson, Daniel C. Dennett, Stephen Jay Gould, Katherine Graubard (who suggested the book’s title), Marcel Kinsbourne, Elizabeth Loftus, Jennifer Lund, Don Michael, George Ojemann, Duane Rumbaugh, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Mark Sullivan, and the late Jan Wind are reflected at multiple places in this book. Bonnie Hurren kindly pointed me to the Piagettian definition of intelligence.
       The editors at Scientific American, John Rennie, Jonathan Piel, and Michelle Press, were very helpful (a short version of my intelligence argument appeared in their “Life in the Universe” special issue of October, 1994; well-tuned paragraphs from it are scattered throughout this book), as was Howard Rheingold at Whole Earth Review (the last part of the last chapter appeared in their Winter 1993 issue).
       Among the others I must thank for their editorial suggestions are Lynn Basa, Hoover Chan, Lena Diethelm, Dan Downs, Seymour Graubard, the late Kathleen Johnston of San Francisco, Fritz Newmeyer, Paolo Pignatelli, Doug vanderHoof, Doug Yanega, and the WELL's writers conference.
       Blanche Graubard, as usual, edited the book before it was inflicted on the publisher, and I have again profited from her good sense and style. Jeremiah Lyons and Sara Lippincott edited the book for the Science Masters series and made many excellent suggestions for revision.

An illustration from HOW BRAINS THINK, chapter 3 ("The Janitor's Dream"),
used to critique the consciousness physicists who seem
to think that one can leap from the subbasement of quantum mechanics
to the penthouse of consciousness in a single bound!.

Corrections and Supplements to the
hardcover HOW BRAINS THINK will be posted here.

The Thoreau quote appears in Faith in a Seed : The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings by Henry David Thoreau (Bradley P. Dean, editor) (Island Press, 1993), at p. 12.

Link to Earl Hunt's article "The role of intelligence in modern society."

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIAL: There are now animated illustrations for the spatiotemporal patterns.

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The following non-US editions are now available (about three more are forthcoming):

Click on a cover for a larger version of it.

Japanese Taiwan

Korean UK cover

German cover Bratislava 2000

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