brief bio
The Bookshelf

William H. Calvin
It's an image (spam precaution), just retype

 University of Washington


revised 2007-12-31 12:53            

For the Lecture Organizer

Scouting around?

I'm always happy to talk, with or without Powerpoint. The recent venues have ranged from a local school cafeteria to the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.

While I give preference to requests to talk about our present climate crisis, I still speak about the great apes, brain circuits for creativity and consciousness, human evolution--and, of course, my books.

Sometimes I get paid, e.g., US$7500 for a recent evening lecture that required a new suit and tie, plus a month of preparation. Just ask (try email first).

My best-documented lecture

“The Great Use-it-or-lose-it Intelligence Test” was the World Bank's CGIAR Crawford Memorial Lecture at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, audience of 800 from 60+ countries.

  1. The climate talk in streaming video (RealMedia*)  You can also get it in Windows Media Player format but with degraded video and audio.
  2. Color slides in PDF (might wish to download before watching video).

  3. Written version in PDF; will appear as a pamphlet.

Pre-lecture resources

For four decades, I have been erroneously introduced as a neurosurgeon or a psychiatrist and so have to waste an initial minute explaining that I'm really a Ph.D. researcher, merely a professor in such departments, thanks to the oddities of academia. Thus I have devised some safe tag lines and short bio's that you can use.

William H. Calvin is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and the author of fourteen books about brains, human evolution, and climate change. The latest is Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change.

There are more versions.

The all-purpose head shot (click on it to get a hi-res version, then right-click to download).

See the new dailykos blog, filled with op-ed drafts.

An hour narrated lecture on the evolution of higher intellectual function (see A Brain for All Seasons and A Brief History of the Mind).

To browse at leisure, click for the book itself.

Some of my current climate slides, mostly from Global Fever.


Recent Talks and Interviews
  • "When Climate Staggers" for Westminster College and also a second talk on what happened 50,000 years ago in the "creative explosion."
  • I was interviewed for an hour on NPR's The Connection, talking about brains, climate, and bounceback.
  • "Cerebral Circuits for Creativity" for CalState Fresno linguistics and then at Stanford. My CNN interview sketches the problem.
  • KUOW, replay of a long radio interview about A Brain for All Seasons.
  •   Ditto for Lingua ex machina.
  • I make a few appearances in Spencer Wells' The Journey of Man on PBS and National Geographic channel worldwide. Now in re-runs.
  • General information for lecture organizers
      (bio, tag lines, CV, photos)

    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 WCBR 2005 is available as webbed slides with narration.

    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.


    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
    2007-12-31 12:53


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    copyright ©1994-2007 by William H. Calvin

    William H. Calvin
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    Mailing address: UW, Box 351800, Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA