brief bio
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The Bookshelf

William H. Calvin
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 University of Washington



"Carbon sequestration must be big and quick "

This what-to-do-about-it lecture (also available as a podcast mp3) for UW oceanography focuses on abrupt climate changes since 1976, how to head off more, and how to use the oceans to sequester enough carbon. Several slides are for the experts, but the rest is suitable for a general scientific audience. Others familiar with the climate story will be able to follow it as well.
Also available as a 53' podcast mp3.
Also available as a 53' podcast mp3

To browse at leisure, click for the book itself.

My slides from an August 2008 climate talk


The climate talk bio:

William H. Calvin, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, affiliated with the Program on Climate Change. He is the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press 2008, see Global-Fever.org) and thirteen earlier books for general readers. He studies brain circuitry, ape-to-human evolution, climate change, and civilization’s vulnerability to abrupt shocks.

     In Global Fever, he writes: "The climate doctors have been consulted; the lab reports have come back. Now it’s time to pull together the Big Picture and discuss treatment options. At a time when architects are thinking ahead to more efficient buildings and power planners are extolling the virtues of “renewable energy,” the climate modelers have discovered that long-term planning will no longer suffice. Our fossil fuel fiasco has already painted us into a corner such that, if we don’t make substantial near-term gains before 2020, the long-term is pre-empted, the efforts all for naught.  We are already in dangerous territory and have to act quickly to avoid triggering widespread catastrophes. The only good analogy is arming for a great war, doing what must be done regardless of cost and convenience."

     His climate talk in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People is available in streaming video from the World Bank as are other recent lectures at NASA and Rice University.


Global Fever

How to Treat Climate Change

from the University of Chicago Press (2008).

Previews at Global-Fever.org

Recent climate talks

“The Great Use-it-or-lose-it Intelligence Test” about the climate crisis was my Crawford Memorial Lecture at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, audience of 800 from 60+ countries.

The climate talk in streaming video (RealMedia*) 
  2. Color slides in PDF (might wish to
download before watching video).
Written version (
28-page World Bank pamphlet) in PDF.

President's Lecture Series, Rice University (same topic as Beijing) in MP3 and streaming video.
SLIDES for Houston in PDF


Obama embraces nuclear power.  Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., and Dr. William Calvin, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, discuss President Barack Obama’s plan to lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil and create more jobs.
[MSNBC, Dylan Ratigan Show, 16 February 2010.]

The Ed Mays interview about climate 

      mp3 files to download or play

Climate creep and climate leap
This podcast is in radio shorts format as a 26' mp3 file  or as six 4-7' segments: 1  2  3  4  5  6

  • The UW oceanography talk available as a 53' podcast mp3
  • I was interviewed for an hour on NPR's The Connection, talking about brains, climate, and bounceback.

  • William H. Calvin, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is the author of 14 popular books on science, mostly about brains, evolution, and climate change.

    Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change    click to order from amazon.com   click to order from amazon.com  click to order from amazon.com  click to order from amazon.com 

    click to order from amazon.com

    They have been translated into 14 languages. He won the Phi Beta Kappa book prize for science as literature and the Kistler Book Prize.  His occasional magazine articles include an Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop." Op-ed-sized pieces can be found at wcalvin.dailykos.com.

    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.

    PREVIEW the first and last chapters on the web


    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:

    • 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 14 nonfiction books on science, mostly about brains, climate, or human evolution.

    • And see the slides for my talks, some with narration.

    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 emeritus 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 and on the Science Review Board of the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, on the Board of Advisors to the Foundation for the Future, 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...

    Recent Additions


    Get a Kindle


    Photos from Beijing

    Talks and Interviews
  • My hour-long KUOW interview on human evolution and the emergence of intellect (apropos A Brief History of the Mind).
  • "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.
  • 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)

    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.


     I have created some e-slide shows from my travels and portraits (I have been rediscovering photography).
    More slide shows at: 
    Gallery 1,  Gallery 2Gallery 3 (People portraits), Gallery 4, and FHL.
    plus portraits of the great apes.



    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.



    This would ordinarily be the section labeled TEACHING but I seem to teach the general public rather than undergraduates.

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

    University of Chicago Press, 2002

    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 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
    It was the Scientific American Book of the Month, won the 2002 Phi Beta Kappa book prize for “outstanding contributions by scientists to the literature of science,” and won the 2006 Walter P. Kistler Book Award, which recognizes authors of science-based books that make important contributions to the public’s understanding of the factors that may impact the long-term future of humanity. At many bookstores as well as:

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

    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.

    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.

    amazon.com link for


    Jared Diamond,
      How societies choose to fail or succeed
    Viking, 2005.

    "Pollyanna reviews Cassandra?" Unpublished (as usual) letter to NY Times.
         Gregg Easterbrook’s review (NYTBR 1/30/05) of Jared Diamond’s two books, ''Guns, Germs, and Steel''  from 1997 and the recent sequel, “Collapse,” has nice things to say but then comes the teaser: “All of which makes the two books exasperating, because both come to conclusions that are probably wrong.” And what does he later offer to substantiate this opinion? “Above us in the Milky Way are essentially infinite resources and living space. If the phase of fossil-driven technology leads to discoveries that allow Homo sapiens to move into the galaxy, then resources, population pressure and other issues that worry Diamond will be forgotten.”
         Sounds like a technofix Pollyanna reviewing a carefully considered Cassandra. (Alas. Easterbrook writes for most of my favorite magazines, and I often admire his work.) After various attempts at postmodernist labeling, Easterbrook says,  “My guess is that despite its conspicuous brilliance, ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel’ will eventually be viewed as a drastic oversimplification. Its arguments come perilously close to determinism, and it is hard to believe that the world is as it is because it had to be that way.”
         Easterbrook tends to caricature a lot, as when he introduces Diamond thus: “Initially he specialized in conservation biology, studying bird diversity….” Initially? No. (See the book jacket.) For many years, Diamond was primarily professor of physiology at UCLA Medical School, specializing in cellular transport in the gut, while he expanded into E. O. Wilson’s territory of biogeography and evolution. Medical school faculty usually believe that, if you understand what’s going on, you might be able to fix some problems and head off future trouble. That’s not determinism.
         We physiologists focus on how processes transform one thing into another. We try to take things apart to see how they work. And that’s what Diamond does in both books, at the level of environment, cultural innovation, and societal choices. He tries to understand, as his subtitle puts it, “How societies choose to fail or succeed.” Easterbrook simply ignores Diamond’s stance and flogs “environmental determinism” instead. After reading what is an extraordinary book about how societies rise and sometimes fall, our best guide yet to what our present civilization is up against, you may well consider Easterbrook’s caricatures bizarre.
         As a civilization, we must intentionally build in the resilience that will allow us to survive hard knocks from such things as fouling our nests, pandemics, and century-long droughts. For this, Diamond says, we “need the political will to apply solutions already available… many societies did find the necessary political will in the past.”

    William H. Calvin
    University of Washington, Seattle



    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

    http://williamcalvin.com/img/yellow.gif" width=14 height=14 > Neuro.........

    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

    it's an image, you need to type it, not copy it (spam...)
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    William H. Calvin
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