|William H. Calvin|
Brief essays and book excerpts covering biology and psychology, the brain and earth sciences, anthropology and evolution.
|The eight-hour PBS television series, Evolution, for which I was a science advisor, will soon be seen in reruns: Tuesday, May 14: Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Tuesday, May 21: Great Transformations and Extinction! Tuesday, May 28: The Evolutionary Arms Race and Why Sex? Tuesday, June 4: The Mind's Big Bang and What About God?, 9-11pm.|
|From an interview
in Psychology Today:
ELIZABETH LOFTUS: A flimsy curtain separates memory from imagination. Suggestions, strong and subtle, can make people believe that they had experiences in childhood that they almost certainly did not have.
WILLIAM CALVIN: Yes, we've long known how false memories can be created. Human memory is always having to contend with the power of suggestion. After all, most happenings aren't "good stories" that fit our narrative expectations, so with retelling they get "improved."
EL. But who is most susceptible to "adopting" a memory? And who is most resistant? There ought to be a lot of individual variability in the susceptibility to false memories. Maybe it correlates with genetics, intelligence and other individual differences. Perhaps we'll develop recipes for what works with various personality types.
WC: Who am I, if not my memories -- and if they're not mine, what does that say about me? It must be threatening to a lot of people, to think that their memories aren't their own.
EL: Memory is creative. There, I've said it all.
WC: But human memory isn't supposed to be creative. Facts are facts, and the past is finished. So when memory scrambles things, you get annoyed.....
Previous issues of
this issue is 2001.1
F. Loftus is Professor of
Psychology and Adjunct Professor of Law, University of Washington,
Seattle WA 98195-1525 USA, http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus.
H. Calvin is Affiliate
Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of
Washington, Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA, http://faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin.
See the rest of the Psychology Today interview.
By the same authors: "The Poet as Brain Mechanic: A 2050 Version of Physics for Poets," a futurist piece in the style of a 2050 course description.
|EL: So what's
the next decade of memory therapy going to be like? Psychotherapy
with a pharmaceutical booster? I can envision 21st-century memory
doctors helping clients with their academic performance by
prescribing additives for the coffee they drink before an upcoming
test. They might even begin their psychotherapy sessions with a
drug that enhances the malleability of memory, making the patient
more susceptible to positive suggestions that occur later in their
WC: More of human memory will move offline. We'll rely more on digital storehouses full of video and audio files of our lives. It'll happen because digital storage is cheap -- and hopefully because we also realize how unreliable human memory can be. Maybe some of the storehouses will be portable, like today's music for joggers, and will provide you with help in remembering people and places.
EL: But when we do get the false memory recipes down pat, we'll be left with critical questions. Who controls that technology? What brakes should be imposed on police, lawyers, advertisers and others who try to manipulate people using these findings? When memory creation technology becomes readily available, how will society protect itself from misuse? We'll need to constantly keep in mind that memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.
|My answer to
the Edge query:
WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?
Where did the moon go? When,
every few years, you see a bite taken out of the sun or moon,
you ought to remember just how frightening that question used to
be. It became clockwork when the right viewpoint was
eventually discovered by science (imagining yourself high above
the north pole, looking at the shadows cast by the earth and the
|One of my
favorite books is by
Edward O. Wilson,
Unity of Knowledge
Wilson argues for consilience -- that
everything in our world is organized by a small number of
fundamental natural laws that comprise the principles governing
every branch of learning.
There is a long excerpt in both the March and April 1998 issues of The Atlantic Monthly.
...let us begin by simply walking away from Foucault, and existentialist despair. Consider this rule of thumb: to the extent that philosophical positions both confuse us and close doors to further inquiry, they are likely to be wrong....
Last year, Edward O. Wilson was the first recipient of the $100,000 Kistler Prize from the Foundation for the Future. This year, the second recipient is Richard Dawkins. Here are some excerpts from the writings of Richard Dawkins.
Mount Improbable (Norton, 1996).
"Darwinism is not a
theory of random chance. It is a theory of random mutation plus non-random
cumulative natural selection. Why, I wonder, is it so hard for
even sophisticated scientists to grasp this simple point?"
Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene (Oxford UP, 1982)."Any suggestion that the child's mathematical ineptitude might have a genetic origin is likely to be greeted with something approaching despair: if it is in the genes "it is written", it is "determined" and nothing can be done about it; you might as well give up attempting to teach the child mathematics. This is pernicious rubbish on an almost astrological scale. Genetic causes and environmental causes are in principle no different from each other. Some influences of both types may be hard to reverse, others may be easy."
An Open Letter to
Prince Charles (published
Sunday May 21, 2000
Your Royal Highness,
Your Reith lecture saddened me. I have deep sympathy for your aims, and admiration for your sincerity. But your hostility to science will not serve those aims; and your embracing of an ill-assorted jumble of mutually contradictory alternatives will lose you the respect that I think you deserve. I forget who it was who remarked: "Of course we must be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out....
the other hand, we must beware of a very common misunderstanding of
Darwinism. Tennyson was writing before Darwin but he got it
right. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. Much as we
might like to believe otherwise, natural selection, working within
each species, does not favour long-term stewardship. It favours
short-term gain. Loggers, whalers, and other profiteers who
squander the future for present greed, are only doing what all wild
creatures have done for three billion years.
|More at Edge.||
Of course that's
bleak, but there's no law saying the truth has to be cheerful;
no point shooting the messenger - science - and no sense in
preferring an alternative world view just because it feels more
comfortable. In any case, science isn't all bleak.
Nor, by the way, is science an arrogant know-all. Any
scientist worthy of the name will warm to your quotation from
Socrates: "Wisdom is knowing that you don't
know." What else drives us to find out?
RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science at Oxford University; Fellow of New College; author of The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River out of Eden) (ScienceMasters Series), Climbing Mount Improbable, and Unweaving the Rainbow.
Antonio R. Damasio,
Introducing Antonio Damasio:
C word has been much in evidence in the last decade, with several
new journals and many new books devoted to consciousness.
But in most of the century since William James wrote about
consciousness, not too much more was said on the subject because
of behaviorism’s emphasis on avoiding what you couldn’t study
in the overt behavior of rats and pigeons.
But however useful and appropriate the
emphasis on attention, it nonetheless led us down the following
garden path. Surely
dogs are conscious, people said, and even a bacterium will
“pay attention” if you poke it, and so some people could
imagine all living things having irritability would have some
form of consciousness. And
if this dilution of the C concept wasn’t bad enough, just try
striking two rocks together and watch the sparks fly.
See, they too are irritable!
Even rocks have consciousness!
So much for that garden path.
I’m reminded of the famous quip of
Francis Crick about what science will eventually do with the
consciousness concept. Crick
reminds us of fifty years ago, when the big debate seemed to be
about the boundary between the living and the nonliving:
Just what properties did it take to be rated “alive”?
Observe, said Crick, that this boundary disappeared into
just so much molecular biology.
Nobody much worries about the living-nonliving boundary
anymore, just about complicated replication schemes that molecules
and cells have.
The problem is, how to talk about the varieties of consciousness
in such a way as to avoid the beginners’ mistakes like the
“little person inside” watching a theater supplied by the
sense organs. Dan
Dennett did a nice demolition job in his 1991 book, but we
really needed a nice creative job by someone really
knowledgeable about the neural substrates.
I had tried my hand at contemplative neural circuitry
using Darwinian processes, in my Cerebral
Code book, but it was about a working-memory
superstructure and I became acutely aware that my proposed
mechanism needed a better foundation in the old memories that we
amalgamate as feelings and leanings, those six-on-a-scale-of-ten
ratings we give our impressions.
Damasio is the Portuguese-educated professor of neurology at
the University of Iowa. Within
the field, he is known as the person who best combines the older
techniques of carefully studying stroke and brain-tumor patients
for what they can and can’t do, with the newer functional
imaging techniques. But
he is more widely known – and to a half-million readers -- as
the author of Descartes' Error.
Antonio R. Damasio,
Antonio R. Damasio,
Daniel C. Dennett,
Daniel C. Dennett,
William H. Calvin,
William H. Calvin and Derek
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."
With each issue of Science Surf, I try to do one longer piece after the shorter ones, often an excerpt from one of my books or essays. This one is from my new book on paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, and considerations from neurobiology and evolutionary biology:
BRAIN FOR ALL SEASONS
which will be out in Spring 2002 from the University of Chicago Press. It is already posted full-text on the web and also in Palm download format, for reading on the commute. It's about what sudden climate flips did to human evolution over the last 2.5 million years. It includes the climate history and flip mechanisms that I described in The Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop" and covers the paleo anthropology as well.
If I were to give an award
for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to
Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else.
In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural
selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with
the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and
Daniel C. Dennett,
starting this little tour at Darwin’s home, sitting at a park
bench under a magnificent oak tree that dates back to Darwin’s
time here. Five years
after returning from the voyage of the Beagle, Charles
Darwin and his young family moved from central London to a
pleasant country home about 16 miles to the southeast, near the
village of Downe. He
lived here forty years until his death in 1882.
No more voyages around the world, not even trips to the
Continent, but Darwin had correspondents everywhere, and sometimes
they showed up at his door.
And it was here at Down House that he raised pigeons,
studied earthworms, and dissected barnacles.
Here he sat, pen in hand, and wrote out his books that
provided so much of our modern understanding of how nature came to
be the way it is.
But only ten years ago, a scientific pilgrimage to
Darwin’s country home was remarkably difficult, unless you got
directions from someone who had been here before.
Only the most detailed guidebooks had a mention of Down
House, and then only in the fine print.
Get off the train from London at Bromley South or
Orpington, and the taxi driver, upon learning your destination,
would knowingly suggest that there were much finer country homes
to visit than Down House – clearly not understanding that it was
Charles Darwin that made Down House so important, not its gardens.
Still, it was enormously inspiring to anyone who understood
the intellectual triumph of Charles Darwin, this chance to see
where he had thought it all through – his study with his
microscope, his chair by the living room fireplace, and his
“sand walk” out back, where he went for three walks a day to
digest his thoughts. Often,
one supposes, Darwin sloughed through the fine English rain,
likely blowing in from the west after forming above the warm Gulf
Most people who think a little about evolution are wedded
to the basic idea of gradual improvements in efficiency – and
not much concerned with the origins of what was later
improved (it was just “mutations“).
Yet it was Darwin himself (a point omitted from even the
modernized science exhibits at Down House) who first cautioned
readers about getting fixated on efficiency, and who – at the
same time – offered a route for invention.
He noted that changes in function could be “so
important,” that an anatomical structure improved for one
function could, in passing, serve some other function that
utilized the same anatomical feature.
(Darwin’s example was the fish’s swim bladder serving
as a primitive lung.) Novelties
come from those nascent secondary uses, not
you haven’t seen Down House since the reopening in
1998, there’s a lot more to see, thanks to much fund-raising
by the British Museum. It
is currently operated by English Heritage, which provides audio
wands to guide you through the rooms.
Next to Darwin’s study, there’s his billiard room,
where cause and effect operated on a simpler, more direct, level
than it does in biology.
Across the hall is the large dining room with its bay
windows; it was also the “justice room” where Darwin served
as a magistrate on occasion.
The now-rebuilt stairway to the upstairs leads you to a
series of former bedrooms, filled with modern exhibits about
Darwin traveled into London for scientific meetings, but
mostly he kept up an enormous correspondence.
His was something like the modern “home office” style
of working, that computers and communications are making
possible even for scientists without inherited wealth.
Darwin’s life shows you another style of doing science,
one without classes to teach or students to supervise, without
grant applications to write, one where piecing together the big
story operated alongside the careful dissection of barnacles,
digesting it all on yet another loop around the Sand Walk,
carrying a great stick which he struck loudly against the
ground, making a rhythmical click as he walked along with a
It’s when making your own third loop around the Sand
Walk (now pebble covered in the familiar English Heritage style,
though there are still some flints to be found) that you find
yourself wanting to tell Charles Darwin about all that has
happened in the last 130 years, about how he was right about
Africa being the place where humans happened.
Then you scale back your plans to something more suitable
for the time it takes to make several more loops.
I decide on abrupt climate change, since it shows how you
can have catastrophic gradualism.
a world without Darwin. Imagine
a world in which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace had not
transformed our understanding of living things.
What . . . would become baffling and puzzling . . . , in urgent
need of explanation? The
answer is: practically everything about living things. . . .
things via catastrophes was seen then (as now) as a form of
style without substance. It
was simply too reminiscent of miracles.
Gradual explanations were to be preferred, if they could be
found. Jerks were to
A nice algorithmic turning of the crank was, in comparison,
a thing of beauty – and Darwin found a wonderful crank via his
inheritance principle, where the more successful of the current
generation were the ones who generated more of the minor new
variants which future generations would test against their
on a successful theme was the name of Darwin’s game.
Darwin saw that the climate had changed many times -
he immediately offered some geological details to support Louis
Agassiz’s 1837 notion of an ice age – and he assumed that
animals and plants had to change too, to keep up with the times.
The variants more in tune with the new environment would
reproduce better, in turn spawning yet more variants around their
gene type (many variants, of course, are worse than their parents,
but they don’t reproduce very well, what with high childhood
mortality). So adult
body characteristics could track the climate, thanks to some
novelties proving to be heritable.
Efficiency improvements do, of course, result in the long
run in a “lean mean machine,” where many features not used for
a long time are stripped out as excess fat.
Until recent years, economists loved this view of things,
with all its improving efficiency – until it became so apparent
that it didn’t explain an innovation, only its subsequent
improvement. And in
an economy dominated by market capture, where the first to market
may overshadow a better late arrival, innovation is becoming much
more important than efficiency.
It’s the “survival of the fastest.”
natural assumption, surely valid in some cases, is that
climate will change slowly enough for little improvements to track
climate over the generations – say, more and more upright
posture as the blister-like uplift of the East African highlands
helped convert forests into open woodlands and then savannas.
What I’d want to tell Darwin is that, just a decade ago,
the ice cores revealed that there have also been very abrupt
climate changes every few thousand years (on average; most are
somewhat irregular exaggerations of an otherwise minor 1,500-year
These jumps are superimposed on the better-known gradual
trends arising from variation in the earth’s orbit.
They are so large and so quick that a single generation
gets caught, forced to innovate on the spot – innovate
behaviorally, that is, since there is no time for anything in the
gradual adaptations line.
And this provides a way around the lean-mean-machine
implications of traditional Darwinism.
Continuing to carry around a lot of useful-in-a-pinch
abilities is a good thing when, about once in every hundred human
generations, the climate goes mad for a while.
The variants that became lean mean machines didn’t
survive very well in the crunch.
Climate catastrophes are often mixed up with evolutionary jumps (imagined macromutations and the like). But when the climate catastrophes repeat so often, then a little one-percent change each time can jack us up, producing major changes in body and behavior in only a million years or so. Darwin, I like to think, would have been intrigued by this “catastrophic gradualism“ insight.
(Knopf, 1995; Princeton UP pb 1996). The best of the Darwin biographies (volume 1; the second volume is due in 2002).
|William H. Calvin|