2006-05-28 17:47

Seattle's Lake Union view of Mt. Rainier, click for hi-res screensaver image
Sunset in Seattle:  Mount Rainier looms over Lake Union


brief bio
The Bookshelf

William H. Calvin       
It's an imahe (spam recaution), just retype

 University of Washington

What's New?  (more...)

The Down House and Bonobo pages have been redone.

-- The "Summer Postcard" for 2004 at Edge.org.
-- The KUOW interview on human evolution.
-- The streaming video of the Cornell science writing talk.

The Seattle U version of the lecture on evolving intellect during the last 1% of ape-to-human evolution.

The 2004 Adamson Lecture in International Studies at Westminster College,
"When Climate Staggers"
"Cerebral Circuits
for Creativity
for Stanford and the Redwood Neuroscience Institute.

  Books, Articles, and Talks
mostly on brains, climate, evolution, and where we're heading.


A Brief History of the Mind
From Apes to Intellect and Beyond

Oxford University Press, 2004

The “Mind’s Big Bang” and
our Expanded Consciousness

This book looks back at the simpler versions of mental life in apes, Neanderthals, and our ancestors, back before our burst of creativity started 50,000 years ago.... The mind’s big bang came long after our brain size stopped enlarging. I suggest that the development of long sentences – what modern children do in their third year – was the most likely trigger. To keep a half-dozen concepts from blending together like a summer drink, you need some mental structuring. In saying “I think I saw him leave to go home,” you are nesting three sentences inside a fourth. We also structure plans, play games with rules, create structured music and chains of logic, and have a fascination with discovering how things hang together. Our long train of connected thoughts is why our consciousness is so different from what came before.
     Where does mind go from here, its powers extended by science-enhanced education but with its slowly-evolving gut instincts still firmly anchored in the ice ages? We will likely shift gears again, juggling more concepts and making decisions even faster, imagining courses of action in greater depth. Ethics are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate, judge quality, and modify our possible actions accordingly. Though science increasingly serves as our headlights, we are out driving them, going faster than we can react effectively.

Calvin maps the environmental influences (such as changing climates and the need to throw a spear accurately) that shaped the evolution of our mental hardware. About 50,000 years ago, he says, long after Homo sapiens had that hardware available, a new mental operating system appeared.  This software upgrade featured syntax, which allowed language to express complex nested concepts, a mental "big bang" that enormously facilitated our ancestors' ability to structure their lives, to anticipate and plan....  Calvin's most compelling insight is that our minds are not ideal for the world we have made.  Evolution has adapted us for different conditions and works too slowly to bail us out now: "Clearly, human cultural innovation is now in charge of getting the bugs out, not biological evolution.  And we haven't made much progress yet."
                      --Ralph Bowden in the Nashville Scene.

There is an exceptionally nice long review from the other side of the world:

What Calvin does... is provide a sensible and accessible reflection on the cognitive roots of many of our confusions and failings. Even more importantly, in his final chapter, ‘The Future of the Augmented Mind’, he argues for a down to earth approach to coping with the defects of the mind we have acquired by natural selection....
Paul Monk in the Australian Financial Review

PREVIEW the first and last chapters on the web[Book review editors click here.]

click to order from amazon.comA Brain for All Seasons
Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change

University of Chicago Press, 2002

Softcover edition now out.  It's my book about what sudden climate flips did to human evolution over the last 2.5 million years, how the climate lurches resonated with punctuated equilibria to pump up brain size.  It was the Scientific American Book of the Month and won the 2002 Phi Beta Kappa book prize for “outstanding contributions by scientists to the literature of science.”
        It is designed as a travelogue, as if it were a seminar by e-mail with a traveling professor.  It begins at Darwin's home near London, tours African fossil sites while discussing the evolution of brains, and ends with a flight from Copenhagen to Seattle that flies over the ice cap of Greenland and the vulnerable sites nearby where the Gulf Stream sinks.  It includes the climate flip history and oceanographic mechanisms that I described in my Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop."

There is something dizzying about William Calvin's books. Enormous erudition is displayed, with an effortless artistry that blends idiosyncracy and digression with wit, insight, and dramatic impact..... Generally, Calvin's instincts for the truth appear to be very acute and his understanding of the available data on a wide variety of subjects is remarkable. There is little doubt that exciting interest in the enormous social and evolutionary impact of weather is just the right thing to be doing at this point in the history of the world. In the process he awakens interest in so many subjects-ethnographic, paleontological, neurological, genetic, sociological, and so on. So long as one appreciates that this is a speculative synthesis, it is possible very safely to enjoy the brilliance and scope of the exposition, which is amusing, alarming, reassuring, and awe inspiring by turns. It is as if the reader is partaking of a conversation with a brilliant and well informed friend who is so full of ideas that no one else can get a word in edgewise.

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 2002

Unless you're a distant relative of mine, you presumably came here because you're interested in one of the topics I'm interested in.  Here are some shortcuts to get to where you really want to go:William H. Calvin

  • If it's brain research that brings you here, you might want to jump ahead to the research section.

  • You can skip even farther ahead to the 12 nonfiction books on science, mostly about brains or human evolution.

  • And I give a lot of talks, often with webbed handouts to help the real or virtual audience find further reading on the subject.

Let me suggest taking a look at where I get my ideas: many of the books I've been reading are excerpted at The Bookshelf. There's also a page of biographical information for the few that need it. I'm an Affiliate Professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. Though, from departmental affiliations, you'd think that I used to be a neurosurgeon, but am now a psychiatrist, I'm really a neurophysiologist, a Ph.D. in physiology and biophysics with a long association with clinicians and biologists.  I'm also affiliated with Emory University's great apes project, on the Board of Advisors to the Foundation for the Future and its Kistler Prize committee, an advisor for the television series The Next Thousand Years, and a member of the Global Business Network (a group of scenario-spinning futurists who try to think a few decades ahead -- WIRED once called us a "Conspiracy of Heretics").   More...

In the June issue of Natural History, I have a long essay on "The Fate of the Soul."  Here's an excerpt:

Nevertheless, you may ask, weren't our ancestors gradually getting smarter, as the brain enlarged threefold in the past several million years? Bigger is smarter, is better -- why, it seems obvious.

That common assumption, however, is challenged by what archaeologists have been finding in the past few decades. There were two early periods of human history, each lasting a million years, without obvious signs of toolmaking progress, despite all of the brain enlargement going on at the same time. The increases in brain size must have been driven by something that has not been preserved for the archaeologists to find – perhaps protolanguage, imitation, expanding cooperation, or more accurate throwing.

Perhaps cleverness was a by-product? But if the brain-size increase resulted in gradually increasing cleverness (again, the common assumption), note that it didn't gradually improve their tool making. Oops.

Even more to the point, by the time of the mind's "big bang," people who looked like us, big brain and all, had been running around Africa for more than 100,000 years without showing signs of modern behaviors like fine toolmaking. Oops again.

The big brain may (or may not) turn out to be necessary for our kind of intelligence, but it sure isn't sufficient for modernity.

Work in Progress

Some of these are drafts, others are "looking for homes" as op-ed pieces and the like, please inquire.  Comments always welcome.

-- "Reinventing god," what a revisionist theologian might want to include from science, just appeared in Im Anfang war (k)ein Gott (Patmos, Dusseldorf, 2004), pp. 175-185.  Looking for an article-length home for the original English. 

-- "Why a creative brain?" is a draft of a book chapter; has a home but comments desired.

-- "Filling the Empty Niches:
The Popularization of Cognitive Neuroscience Has a Long Way to Go" is a chapter-length contribution to a pending book,
BEYOND THE IVORY TOWER, edited by Saleem H. Ali and Robert Barsky.

click to order from amazon.com
Lingua ex Machina,2000

click to order from amazon.com
The Cerebral Code. 1996

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think


Recent Talks and Interviews

General information for lecture organizers
  (bio, tag lines, CV, photos)

Upcoming Talks & Trips

October 1-2 Friday Harbor Labs
October 18 Science at the Movies memory talk UW
October 22-27 Society for Neuroscience in San Diego
November 5-7 Salk Institute, UCSD
November 25-30 "Evolution of Human Minds" lecture at linguistics, Academia Sinica, Taiwan
January 23-28 Plenary lecture, Winter Conference on Brain Research, Breckenridge, Colorado
February 17-21 "The Nascent Human Mind" lecture at AAAS annual meeting in Washington DC
February 25-27 "Mind in the Making" lecture at University of Wisconsin, philosophy
April 10 Port Townsend lecture series

*The ones with an asterisk are not properly designed web pages but slides from talks, likely slow to download except on a broadband connection.

o Brainsclick to order this book from amazon.com
On the experimental side of neurophysiology, I have recorded from single neurons in species ranging from sea slugs in vitro to humans in situ.  My theoretical work was originally on cable properties of neurons but more recently has been on the emergent properties of recurrent excitatory networks in the superficial layers of cerebral cortex.  A quick reference is
"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 (1995).
There are glimpses of my research on neurons in the book that George Ojemann and I wrote on cerebral function, Conversations with Neil's Brain, which is particularly suitable for students and general readers.  You can now print out some of my research papers as PDF files.

o Evolution & Biological Anthropologyclick to order the audiotape from Amazon
Like a lot of other people, I've had an interest in the "big brain problem," how evolution reorganized and enlarged the ape brain in the last few million years. Abrupt climate change is an important driver for hominid evolution, and so I've been following paleoclimate studies and the related oceanography since 1984 -- which is how I came to write "The Great Climate Flip-flop" for The Atlantic Monthly.  More...  And see:
"The Unitary Hypothesis: A Common Neural Circuitry for Novel Manipulations, Language, Plan-ahead, and Throwing?" In Tools, Language, and Cognition in Human Evolution, edited by Kathleen R. Gibson and Tim Ingold. Cambridge University Press, pp. 230-250 (1993).

"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, 2001), pp. 97-115.

"The Emergence of Intelligence," Scientific American Presents 9(4):44-51 (November 1998).  It's also out in audiotapeHuman Evolution: Selections from Scientific American Magazine by Stephen Jay Gould, William H. Calvin, Yves Coppens, Ian Tattersall, & Luca Cavalli-Sforza.

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

My New York Times book review is a good introduction to the language aspects. Older webbed reprints include my 1983 Journal of Theoretical Biology throwing article. 

click to order from amazon.com A Brief History of the Mind, 2004 The 2002 book,  A Brain for All Seasons:  Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change involves paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, and considerations from neurobiology and evolutionary biology.  It won the Phi Beta Kappa book prize for "contributions to the literature of science."

My 2004 book, A Brief History of the Mind:  From Apes to Intellect and Beyond (Oxford UP), looks back at the simpler versions of mental life in apes, Neanderthals, and our ancestors, back before our burst of creativity started 50,000 years ago in the transition to behaviorally-modern humans.

o Evolution as an on-the-fly Brain Process
I tend to think that the fancier mental processes (language, planning, music, logic) utilize a form of Darwinian process that operates in milliseconds to minutes. See

click to order from Amazonclick to order from Amazon

My books, How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now and The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind, have much more. And apropos syntax, Derek Bickerton and I wrote Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (MIT Press, 2000).  See the slides for "Cerebral Circuits for Creativity" for CalState Fresno linguistics.

What's New
New web pages
The following web pages have been recently added to this site (the ones with an asterisk* are slides from talks, perhaps slow to download). click to order from amazon.com


W. H. Calvin ©2004

I have created some e-slide shows from my travels and portraits (I have been rediscovering photography).
More slide shows at:  Gallery 1 (parts of above collection, enlarged), Gallery 2Gallery 3 (Portraits), Gallery 4, and FHL.


Current One-hour Lecture Topics

General Public, General Scientific audiences (it's mostly climate and oceanography with some anthropology)

Shocks and Instabilities
Climate is like a drunk.

If left alone, it sits. 
Forced to move, it staggers.

Coming on stage now is a stunning example of how civilization must rescue itself.  It dwarfs the three big scientific alerts from the 1970s about global warming, ozone loss, and acid rain. But until the 1990s, no one knew much about abrupt climate change, those past occasions when the whole world flipped out of a warm-and-wet climate like today’s into the alternate mode, which is like a worldwide version of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  There are big alterations in only 3-5 years.  A few centuries later, the drought climate flips back into worldwide warm-and-wet, even more quickly.  Unlike greenhouse warmings, the big flips have happened every few thousand years on average, though the most recent one was back before agriculture in 10,000 B.C.  The next flip may arrive sooner than otherwise, thanks to our current warming trend.  The northern extension of the Gulf Stream appears quite vulnerable to global warming in four different ways.  An early warning might be a decline in this current.  And according to two oceanographic studies published this last year, this vulnerable ocean current has been dramatically declining for the last 40-50 years, paralleling our global warming and rising CO2.

The 2004 version of this talk, for the Adamson Annual Lecture on International Studies, is here.

General Public, General Scientific audiences (it's mostly anthropology, evolution, and psychology) 

The Evolution of Human Minds:
The Ice Age Emergence of Higher Intellectual Functions

The suite of higher intellectual functions includes syntax, multi-stage planning, structured music, chains of logic, games with arbitrary rules, and our fondness for discovering hidden patterns (the search for coherence).  It's likely that they share some neural machinery for handling structure and judging coherence.  But the archeological record suggests that they are late-comers -- that the three-fold enlargement of the ape brain into the human brain was complete about 150,000 years ago, but that they were intensely conservative, doing little that Neanderthals didn’t do as well.  The "behaviorally modern" aspects were seldom seen before the Creative Explosion about 50,000 years ago.  So the big brain is not all about intellect.  What happened to reorganize the brain after 100,000 years at its present size, to make it more creative and versatile, back during the middle of the most recent ice age?

The version of this talk for UW Psychiatry Grand Rounds is available as webbed slides
(remember to click the mouse to advance slides).

General Scientific and Cognitive Psychology audiences (it's mostly neurobiology and evolutionary theory)

Cerebral Circuits for Creativity:   
Bootstrapping Coherence using a Darwin Machine

The problem with creativity is not in putting together novel mixtures – a little confusion may suffice – but in managing the incoherence. Things often don’t hang together properly – as in our night­time dreams, full of people, places, and occasions that don’t fit together very well. What sort of on-the-fly process does it take to convert such an incoherent mix into a coherent compound, whether it be an on-target movement program or a novel sentence to speak aloud? The bootstrapping of new ideas works much like the immune response or the evolution of a new animal species — except that the neocortical brain circuitry 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 this Darwin Machine for copying competitions among cerebral codes. Eventually, as quality improves, we become conscious of our new invention.  It's probably the source of our fascination with discovering hidden order, with imagining how things hang together, seen in getting the joke or doing science. 

The version of this for Stanford University is available as webbed slides.


General Public and Cognitive Psychology audiences (it's mostly anthropology and neurobiology)

Planning ballistic movements
as an evolutionary setup for syntax

For slow movements, progress reports can update the plan and correct an approximate intention. But for ballistic movements that are over-and-done in 1/8 sec, the feedback is too slow to correct the movement; you have to make the perfect plan during get set.
We know that our ancestors were eating a lot of meat by about 1.8 million years ago. They had probably figured out how to bring down big grazing animals, and with regularity. But accurate throwing (as opposed to, say, the chimp’s fling of a branch) is a difficult task for the brain. During “get set” one must improvise an appropriate-to-the-target orchestration of a hundred muscles and then execute the plan without feedback. While there are hundreds of ways to throw that would hit a particular target, they are hidden amidst millions of wrong answers, any one of which would cause dinner to run away. Planning it right the first time, rather than trying over and over, has real advantages.  Just use the ballistic movement planning circuits for other similar tasks in the spare time. And what fits are the novel structured tasks of higher intellectual function, such as syntax, contingent plans, polyphonic music, getting the joke, and our search for how things all hang together (seen in crossword puzzles and in doing science). Yes, some of them “pay their own way” subsequently, but the free lunch seems to be alive and well in the brain, where novel secondary uses abound.

The Seattle University keynote slides are here.

Examples of 10-20 minute talks


To browse a copy of one of my books, click on a cover for the link to amazon.com. 

A Brief History of the Mind, 2004
A Brief History of the Mind
, 2004

A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

This would ordinarily be the section labeled TEACHING but I seem to teach the general public rather than undergraduates.
Previous Book
William H. Calvin  Click to order from Amazon

Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change

from the University of Chicago Press.  It's about what sudden climate flips did to human evolution over the last 2.5 million years.  It is designed as a travelogue, and reads as if it were a seminar by e-mail.  The trip starts at Darwin's home outside London, visits southern and eastern Africa, and then flies over the trouble spots in the North Atlantic Ocean and Greenland.  It includes the climate flip mechanisms that I described in The Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop." 

Winner of the 2002 Phi Beta Kappa book prize for “outstanding contributions by scientists to the literature of science.”  Available at many bookstores as well as:

University of Chicago Press. 
ISBN 0-226-09201-1 (hb)
ISBN 0-226-09203-8 (pb)

Softcover edition is now out.

The publisher's selection for the back cover:

"[Calvin is] 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."
  --Marcia Bartusiack, The New York Times Book Review

"In this wide-ranging and highly readable book Bill Calvin, one of the foremost interpreters of the mysteries posed by our remarkable human consciousness, builds a dramatic yet thoughtful and very personal account of human evolution around the theme of climatic change in our emergence. Along the way he explores a wealth of fascinating byways, making this a rumination that nobody with an interest in how we came to be will want to miss."
  --Ian Tattersall, author of The Monkey in the Mirror.

"William Calvin uses an adventure across today's earth to draw laser-sharp insights about our human past, and possibly its future. Though the climate has been exceptionally stable during the brief era that civilization moved from clay tablets to megacities, this hasn't always been the case. In fact, Calvin shows how gyrating weather patterns may have forged our ancestors' evolutionary path. And since Earth's climate may resume those catastrophic swings at any time, evolution may not be finished with us yet."
  --David Brin, author of The Transparent Society.

"At first sight, a connection between the climate and the human brain may seem far-fetched. William Calvin makes an excellent stab, however, at convincing us that abrupt climatic changes had a profound impact on human evolution, selecting for increased cooperation that required more complex brains. The result is a rich blend of travel stories, paleontology, climatology, neurology, and of course evolutionary biology."
  --Frans de Waal, author of The Ape and the Sushi Master.

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

search entire web search within
And my favorite source for looking up other authors' books
(and, that neat new feature, who has quoted them):

In Association with Amazon.com Search: 
Search keywords:

William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton, Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (MIT Press, 2000), the book we wrote at Bellagio.
Click to order from amazon
Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, the intellectual spectator sport of the last four decades, implies an innate brain circuitry for syntax. That opens up an evolutionary can of worms, suggesting a large step up to human-level language abilities – one without the useful-in-themselves intermediate steps usually associated with Darwinian gradualism. That macromutations were suggested is only one example of the deus ex machina quality of most attempts to explain the origins of language.

A proper lingua ex machina would be a language machine capable of nesting phrases and clauses inside one another, complete with evolutionary pedigree. Such circuitry for structured thought might also facilitate creative shaping up of quality (figuring out what to do with the leftovers in the refrigerator), contingency planning, procedural games, logic, and even music. And enhancing structured thought might give intelligence a big boost. Solve the cerebral circuitry for syntax, and you might solve them all.

The authors offer three ways for getting from ape behaviors to syntax. They focus on the transition from simple word association in short sentences (protolanguage) to longer recursively structured sentences (requiring syntax)....

AVAILABLE: The US and UK hardcover edition is widely available.  The Spanish translation is from Editorial Gedisa of Barcelona.

Hardcover, ISBN 0-262-032732

Paperback, ISBN 0-262-531984

click to order it from amazonThe Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind, from MIT Press (1996). Unlike the other books, it's more for scientists than general readers. Chapter titles are: The Representation Problem and the Copying Solution, Cloning in Cerebral Cortex, A Compressed Code Emerges, Managing the Cerebral Commons, Resonating with your Chaotic Memories, Partitioning the Playfield, Intermission Notes, The Brownian Notion, Convergence Zones with a Hint of Sex, Chimes on the Quarter Hour, The Making of Metaphor, Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind. GENERALLY AVAILABLE Hardcover, US$22.50;ISBN 0-262-03241-4
Softcover, US$14.00; ISBN 0-262-53154-2.

The German translation, Die Sprache des Gehirns: Wie in unserem Bewußtsein Gedanken entstehen, is at amazon.de.

"... in The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind, Calvin lays out a wide-ranging and innovative theory linking the neural structure of the cortex to thought, language, and consciousness." "... a fascinating and readable presentation of a novel and radical approach to bridging the gap between mind and brain."

"[Calvin's CEREBRAL CODE] basic model can be applied to problems such as the sequences needed for body movements and in language, making associations, imagining, and thought pathologies. Finally, he goes for gold with a thought experiment, testing his [cortical Darwin Machine] theory on consciousness and a mechanistic outline for Universal Grammar.... [Calvin's is] a vision that is now all too rare. Right or wrong, his ideas should stimulate many to think more broadly about the dynamic processes of the cortex...."

--Jennifer Altman, in New Scientist (23 November 1996)

Click to order from amazonHow Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now in the Science Masters series from Basic Books in the USA (1996) and Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the UK. There are 12 translation editions (including Japan and China). A Book of the Month Club selection. It expands on the Scientific American article to address the evolution of consciousness, intelligence, and language. The chapter titles are What to Do Next, Evolving a Good Guess, The Janitor's Dream, Evolving Intelligent Animals, Syntax as a Foundation of Intelligence, Evolution On-The-Fly, Shaping Up an Intelligent Act from Humble Origins, Prospects for a Superhuman Intelligence.  AVAILABLE: The US and UK editions are out in paperback.
  • amazon.com
  • Book of the Month Club
  • Library of Science main selection.
  • Also available on the web.
  • ISBN 0-465-07277-1
"[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 provocative, stimulating book."

-- Sunday Times (London)

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

-- Financial Times (London)

The Hungarian, German, Romanian, Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, Taiwan, and UK editions of How Brains Think are available.


click to order it from Amazon.comConversations with Neil's Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Addison-Wesley, 1994), co-authored with my neurosurgeon colleague, George Ojemann. It's a tour of the human cerebral cortex, conducted from the operating room, and has been on the New Scientist bestseller list of science books. It is suitable for biology and cognitive neuroscience supplementary reading lists. Chapter titles are A Window to the Brain, Losing Consciousness, Seeing the Brain Speak, If Language Is Left, What's Right?, The Problems with Paying Attention, The Personality of the Lowly Neuron, The What and Where of Memory, How Are Memories Made? What's Up Front? When Things Go Wrong with Thought and Mood, Tuning Up the Brain by Pruning, Acquiring and Reacquiring Language, Taking Apart the Visual Image, How the Brain Subdivides Language, Why Can We Read So Well? Stringing Things Together in Novel Ways, Deep in the Temporal Lobe, Just Across from the Brain Stem, In Search of the Narrator.

AVAILABILITY widespread (softcover, US$12; ISBN 0-201-48337-8). German and Dutch translations.


Authors Guild reprint editions of the first six books are available.
How the Shaman Stole the Moon (Bantam 1991; Authors Guild reprint 2001) is my archaeoastronomy book, a dozen ways of predicting eclipses — those Paleolithic strategies for winning fame and fortune by convincing people that you're (ahem) on speaking terms with whoever runs the heavens.
SUPPLEMENT: "Leapfrogging Gnomons" describes how to survey a 700-km north-south line without modern instruments.
Available in an Authors Guild reprint edition through amazon.com and other booksellers.  

click to order it from Amazon.com

Also in German translation.


The Ascent of Mind (Bantam 1990; Authors Guild reprint 2001) is my book on the ice ages and how human intelligence evolved; the "throwing theory" is one aspect. All chapters are now webbed.
   My Scientific American article, "The emergence of intelligence," (October 1994) also discusses ice-age evolution of intelligence.

click to order it from Amazon.comThe German translation, Der Schritt aus der Kälte, is now available.  The Authors Guild reprint edition is available through amazon.com and other booksellers:  

The Cerebral Symphony (Bantam 1989; Authors Guild reprint 2001) is my book on animal and human consciousness, using the setting of the Marine Biological Labs and Cape Cod. click to order it from Amazon.comThere are German and Dutch translations.  The original English is now available in an Authors Guild reprint edition via amazon.com and other booksellers:


The River That Flows Uphill (Sierra Club Books 1987; Authors Guild reprint 2001) is my river diary of a two-week whitewater trip through the bottom of the Grand Canyon, discussing everything from the Big Bang to the Big Brain. It became a bestseller in German translation in 1995. click to order it from Amazon.comGerman and Dutch translations are available, and the original English version is available in an Authors Guild reprint edition through amazon.com and other booksellers.  

The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain (McGraw-Hill 1983, Bantam 1991, Authors Guild reprint 2001) 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. 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.
Japanese translation available, and the Authors Guild reprint edition is available through amazon.com and other booksellers:

click to order it from Amazon.com

click to order it from Amazon.comInside the Brain (NAL, 1980; Authors Guild reprint 2001), co-authored with my neurosurgeon colleague, George Ojemann, is back in print. Note that it was effectively replaced by our Conversations with Neil's Brain. except that space limitations caused us to omit the subcortical aspects which are prominent in Inside the Brain.  The Authors Guild reprint edition is available through amazon.com and other booksellers.


click to order it from Amazon.com
Amazon link

Brian Fagan,
The Long Summer
  How Climate Changed Civilization
Basic Books, 2004.

My advance appreciation for the book jacket:

Just as the many worldwide droughts may have pumped up brain size in human evolution, so they are shown by Fagan to have repeatedly pumped cultural evolution in the last 15,000 years to give us first agriculture and then the governments needed to collectively manage irrigation and grain storage. Now, when we are top-heavy with cities, another such great drought could instead trigger a profound collapse. If you are concerned about the future of our civilization, Fagan’s book must be read and understood.

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Carl Zimmer
Soul Made Flesh:
The Discovery of the Brain and How It Changed the World
Free Press, 2004

From my forthcoming review:

In Soul Made Flesh, you see the first big 17th-century steps toward understanding how the brain makes mind. Carl Zimmer, the science writer who wrote Evolution, the book that accompanied the eight-hour television series, has now written a fine intellectual history of what came to be called “experimental philosophy.”  It is full of drama and insight that begins in William Harvey’s time with the flowering of physiology and the beginnings of the Royal Society in London.

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Daniel C. Dennett
Freedom Evolves:
The Modern Denial of Human Nature
Viking, 2003.

[W]e human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers.  We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe.  And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.  – Daniel Dennett [p.2]

My advance appreciation for the book jacket:

To understand is to "stand under," to view the underpinnings. To find a useful standpoint for free will and determinism has been fraught with slippery footings and fear. Dennett tries viewing free will as an evolutionary emergent, able to expand further - or to shrink when novel choices cannot be imagined, judged, or carried out. Freedom Evolves is wonderfully clarifying about the evolutionary and cognitive issues involved in our responsibility for making moral choices.

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Steven Pinker,
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
Viking, 2002.

I quite like Pinker’s book and think that some of the reviews (such as the one in Nature) are off the wall in misreading it.  This is not a rehash of nature-vs-nurture but a much broader and deeper book about three beginners’ mistakes (my term, not Pinker’s): The Blank Slate, the Noble Savage, and the Ghost in the Machine.  Pinker’s concern is not only that they appear to be factually wrong but that the policies based on them are likely to do more harm than good.  Some choice quotes:

The new scientific challenge to the denial of human nature leaves us with a challenge. If we are not to abandon values such as peace and equality, or our commitments to science and truth, then we must pry these values away from claims about our psychological makeup that are vulnerable to being proven false. [p. xi]

[O]ur understanding of ourselves and our cultures can only be enriched by the discovery that our minds are composed of intricate neural circuits for thinking, feeling, and learning rather than blank slates, amorphous blobs, or inscrutable ghosts. [p.72]

The taboo on human nature has not just put blinkers on researchers but turned any discussion of it into a heresy that must be stamped out. Many writers are so desperate to discredit any suggestion of an innate human constitution that they have thrown logic and civility out the window. Elementary distinctions - "some" versus "all," "probable" versus "always," "is" versus "ought" - are eagerly flouted to paint human nature as an extremist doctrine and thereby steer readers away from it. The analysis of ideas is commonly replaced by political smears and personal attacks. This poisoning of the intellectual atmosphere has left us unequipped to analyze pressing issues about human nature just as new scientific discoveries are making them acute.
     The denial of human nature has spread beyond the academy and has led to a disconnect between intellectual life and common sense. [p.x]
                                                    -- Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate (2002)

You can see why some people are going to have strong feelings on the subject of human nature.  But Pinker’s is a humane and thoughtful book, and deserves all the attention that it gets.


This section expanded so much that it now has its own "page": The Bookshelf.  It runs heavily to the likes of the Three D's (Darwin-Dawkins-Dennett), leavened by a little Tom Stoppard.

Favorite Web Sites


Evolution and such......

  • Becoming Human, the award-winning web site about human origins.
  • Emory University's Living Links Center and Georgia State University's Language Research Center are the major web sites for research on the apes.
  • A Geologist's Lifetime Field List and UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
  • Charles Darwin's home at Downe
  • The PBS series Evolution and its videotapes.  I was one of the science advisors.
  • Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin Series of 20 novels.  My appreciation written for WIRED magazine's read.me column:  "I re-read this extraordinary series of novels because of the depth of portrayal of the major and minor characters, but also because they teach me so much about what science and technology were like two centuries ago.  O'Brian shows you the world-that-was through the eyes of a Tory naval captain (Jack Aubrey), at sea since the age of 12, working his way up to admiral, dealing with the height of 18th-century technology (sailing ships and celestial navigation).  I identify more strongly with his liberally-educated, physician-scientist friend (Stephen Maturin), who went to medical school in Paris during the French Revolution. You see natural history turning into a biological science, bleeding-and-purging medicine starting to learn some physiology -- and, because Maturin is also an intelligence agent for the Admiralty, you see statecraft at work during the Napoleonic Wars.  These books strongly remind you about what scientific ignorance and social conventions can do to your mindset, and how the future will likely judge us as well."

And, as a reward for reading this far, some Humor.....

  • In Budapest as I was attempting to explain to John Maynard Smith (author of The Evolution of Sex, etc.) the Cerebral Code's analogies of corticocortical convergence to gamete dimorphism and the resulting numerical disproportion, his eyes began to glaze over and he said, "You know, Calvin, the real reason why it takes so many sperm to fertilize a single egg? It's because none of the sperm will ask for directions."  Then, to complete the distraction, he poured me another glass of the excellent Hungarian wine.
  • Umberto Eco's "Mac's are Catholic, DOS is Protestant", Windows is Anglican, and machine language is Old Testament, talmudic and cabalistic. "Like an Old Testament god with lots of rules and no mercy" is what Joseph Campbell said about personal computers.
  • Philosophical humor: "Why did the chicken cross the road?" Machiavelli: "So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road, but also with fear...."
  • The qualification test for sailboat owners.
Retired "Additions."    The ones with an asterisk* are slides from talks, slow to download.click to order it from Amazon.com

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William H. Calvin
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