copyright ©2002 by William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin

Brief essays and book excerpts covering biology and psychology, the brain and earth sciences, anthropology, evolution, and the future.

William H. Calvin is Affiliate Professor of
 Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences,
 University of Washington,
 Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA,

 Science Surf   2002.1

back issues 1996.1   1996.2    1996.3    2001.1

Left-over Ideas


I find myself writing a lot of things that don't necessarily find their way into print, either because I'm too lazy to push them (it's far easier to write an op-ed piece than it is to find a home for it) or because they are proposals and talks.  In this issue of Science Surf, I'll provide some examples.  Think of it as a writer's weblog of sorts.











I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect.  If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.
--Tom Stoppard, 
The Right Thing
, 1982

An op-ed piece about Stephen Jay Gould that I am trying to find a home for (Slate didn't even bother replying):


Saturday, May 25, 2002   19:30:41

The evolution hat


“Which hat are you wearing tonight?” Katherine asked.  “The brain hat?”  My wife claims I have at least five hats, more than any sensible professor needs.  She worries that I’ll give the right talk to the wrong audience.

            No, I said, it’s evolution this time.  Worse yet, I have to try and make sense out of the demise of Stephen Jay Gould last Monday.  It’s like a whole library of potential books had been burned down.  We’d known for two months that Steve was in trouble again from cancer, that he’d had a metastasis removed from his brain — and then gone back to teaching.  (“I don't know any other way to live,” he is reported to have said.  Sounds like Steve.)

            He was in good health only a few months ago, a twenty-year cancer survivor.  He had an abdominal mesothelioma in 1982, something where the average survival was only eight months.  As he pointed out in an essay, “The Median is not the Message,” another way to look at it is that half the patients are still alive after eight months.  This time, however, it was an adenocarcinoma, a form of lung cancer that is often well advanced before being detected.  Steve had a number of metastases in essential organs.

            Katherine and I reminisced about the dinner we had with Steve a few years ago, balancing plates on our laps at the lake shore as the sun set.   He didn’t talk about cancer, just our mutual interests in evolution and writerly habits.  He said he would finally start writing on a computer when his secretary retired, that she understood his marked up typewriter screed so well that there was no need to change.  She got a lot of practice, as Steve wrote at least fifteen essays a year plus other stuff — and big 1400-page academic books every quarter century.

            Oddly enough, Katherine and I had had lunch earlier that day with Susan Sontag.  We’d talked about her surviving the constant shelling in Sarajevo, not about the two years of chemotherapy she wrote about in Illness as Metaphor (1978).

            Later that night, on the walk back up the hill, Katherine and I marveled that here we had not one but two long-term cancer survivors, each of whom had already gotten 15-20 years of extra life after a grim prognosis.  Not only survival, but just look at all the extra books that each had been able to write, thanks to catching cancer in time and having an effective treatment.

            Reading Steve’s early essays and his first big research book, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977), was what got me to reading more broadly about evolution.  One of his important contributions as a paleontologist was to convince us that there are long periods in evolution where species really don't change very much.  Darwinian gradualism doesn't necessarily guarantee a steady course of improvements.  Then there are periods when things progress considerably faster, no longer stuck in a rut.

            Both of my main interests in evolution — the evolution of the big brain in only several million years, and the use of the Darwinian process in the brain to improve the quality of the next sentence you speak — involve the search for speedy ways of evolving things.  I tuned right into what Steve was saying.  


            I tried to distill a set of essential ingredients for a universal Darwinian process, one that could operate in brain circuitry in mere seconds, as you figured out what to say next.  I got Steve to take a look at my five essentials:  a pattern that is copied with variations, where populations of the variants compete for a workspace, much like crabgrass and bluegrass compete for our backyard in Seattle.  Then (and this is what Darwin called “natural selection”) there was a multifaceted environment that allowed one variant to do better than the other.  (How often you cut the grass, water it, fertilize it, freeze it, and walk on it.  In our environmental mixture, crabgrass is winning.)  

            Steve put on his glasses and looked at my list.  “You probably need an inheritance principle,” he said shortly.  “It’s something Darwin missed at first and added later.”  Darwin’s inheritance principle means that those juveniles who best survive childhood and find mates are the ones who generate the next round of little variations.  Most will prove no better than their parents, but some will “fit” the challenges of the local environment even better than their parents.

            If the random variations are big, their starting point isn’t remembered.  But they’re usually small, and that’s what makes for local “progress,” what makes evolution’s creativity so impressive to us.  Subtract any one of the six essentials, and things just wander without any direction.

            Steve’s demise reminds me of that fourfold hierarchy of data, information, knowledge, and wisdom.  In science, getting raw data is hard enough.  Then you have to refine it:  information is “data that makes a difference.”  Some of it yields knowledge of how things really work.  But turning knowledge into wisdom is the most difficult step, not often accomplished.  You need a lot of knowledge stored in your head that can simmer for awhile.  In some fields of intellectual endeavor, especially history and the historical sciences, creative people get better as they get older.  The near-doubling of the average human lifespan in some countries has meant a lot in terms of being able to successfully turn knowledge into wisdom.

            Steve was only 60, with lots of knowledge cooking.  And here we all hoped that Steve would turn out to be like that grand old man of evolution, Ernst Mayr of Harvard, who is still busy writing important books at age 97.

Next week(??):  The anthropology hat.  Or The brain hat.  Or The climate hat.  Or (surely last in such a series) The futurist hat.

William H. Calvin is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, the author of A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change (University of Chicago Press, 2002).  

We have become, by the power of a glorious evolutionary accident called intelligence, the stewards of life's continuity on earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.
Stephen Jay Gould,
Natural History
, 1984
There may be nothing new under the sun, but permutation of the old within complex systems can do wonders.
Stephen Jay Gould,
Ontogeny and Phylogeny, 1977


Time Travelers

(From a proposal for a TV series about the future):

     I wonder if time travelers and counterfactual history might provide a narrative of a human journey, one that could illuminate the future, indeed alternative futures.  It’s a technique that could spice up various programs, but would be introduced in the very first that commented on the last thousand years.

An example (scene is a candle-lit very old-fashioned French bistro):

            “Jacques!  Where have you been?  We gave you up for dead.”

            “What a wild dream!  I guess I’ve been asleep somewhere.  Pour me some of that wine.”

            “Dreaming for three days?  Come on, now.  Where’s you been?”

            “Well, I was in the cathedral, sort of.”

            “We looked for you there, even up among your gargoyles.  We thought maybe you were trying to finish those last ones, that perch on the ledges of the south tower.  We even looked below to see if you fell off.”

            “Well, in this dream I was really there, but the gargoyles were all finished — weathered like old gravestones too.  That nose I worked so hard on last month was gone, clipped off.  Couldn’t even see the fine details, the stone was so roughened.”

            “What did this here bistro look like?”

            “It wasn’t here!  Instead there was this great plaza, filled with the pilgrims.”

            “No town?”

            “Oh, there was a town all right.  It went on as far as I could see from the south tower, miles and miles in every direction.  And the pilgrims, dressed real funny, ride up in these big shiny carriages — there’s no horse, but they smoke.   And the river has five bridges over it onto our island, not just one.”

            “That’s some dream.  So tell me if the cathedral roof still leaks.”

            “It does, it does!  I was there in the middle of this thunderstorm, just like that one last year when the choir was singing and the lightning flashes lit up one glass window and then another.  And sure enough pilgrims started moving their seats because of the drips coming down from the ceiling.  But the really strange part of my dream is that some of the candles exploded.”  








            “Candles don’t explode.”

            “Well, these weren’t exactly candles.  There were dozens of them on the chandeliers, but they were brighter than any candle I’ve ever seen — and they didn’t flicker either.  But when one of the drips from the ceiling struck one, it exploded and then fizzled out!  Choir, lightning, thunder outside and these little explosions inside!”

            “Did you see that big cathedral up at Saint-Pierre de Beauvais?”

            “No, but I heard a guide say that it fell down, just a hundred years after it was built.”

            “I knew it wouldn’t last.  Too damn big.  Bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

And so on.

             The idea is to do time travelers into the future who comment on critical junctures in their past, as in reporting on what the Notre-Dame guide said.  As part of a first program about the last thousand years that ramps up to the other programs, you could have a time traveler from 1950 returning from 2000 reporting (to a PTA meeting with everyone in 1950’s haircuts and clothing) on the race to the moon and then the collapse of Soviet Union — but then moving on to life and work, that the vision of more leisure time didn’t work out.  Whereas a father’s one job was capable of supporting a family of five, things had devolved so that both parents had to work just to provide for themselves and 1-2 kids.  This was progress?  Where 1950s kids could get into college and succeed even if they goofed off and never did their homework (like me), that the kids in 2000 didn’t dare lift their noses away from the grindstone for even a minute if they were to get into a good college, that public schools were being abandoned or sold off, in favor of schemes where the rich got richer and those who falter slipped ever farther behind.

            For example, a scene in China in 1450 after the exploration fleets were burned could explain the consequences of not rounding Africa to find the sea route to Europe , that the Europeans had discovered Asia in 1497 and dominated Asia for the next 400 years.  When, if the Chinese admiral had been permitted to keep going, Asia could have dominated Europe instead.

            For the next thousand years, I see the reporting scene as being set in the near future, quite recognizable (certainly not in the year 3000, with all the trekky production values problems).  Some travelers would come back reporting on a bleak future where every country hated their neighbors and technology had become more primitive, reporting on a failure of the Gulf Stream and the downsizing wars that rippled through the world.  Apparently the scientists understood what could happen but everyone was car crazy, etc.  Other travelers would come back reporting on wild success that, however, hinged on some improbable present-day invention like the web browser.

A speech to the Friday Harbor Laboratories Developmental Advisory Board, May 3, 2002, presenting a book to Arthur Whiteley:


Back before the Whiteley Center existed, I had to go all of the way to Italy for an intensive month-long collaboration with a linguist co-author.  The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center has been providing such scholarly facilities for fifty years and they have a wonderful library to show for it, packed with books that have been written there.

      In fifty years, I dare say that the Whiteley Center’s bookshelves will have long been filled with books written in the studies.  It gives me great pleasure to present Arthur Whiteley with the first installment on this collection, my new book A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change from the University of Chicago Press.  It was extensively rewritten in two long sessions at the Whiteley Center in 2000 and 2001.  I don’t know if you’ll be reminded of the Whiteley Center’s flickering fireplace and long table filled with rearranged manuscript pages as you read the book, but I certainly am.

      Thank you once again, Arthur, for having the vision to create this lovely place.

William H. Calvin
May 3, 2002



The book talk blurb:




William H. Calvin,
 A Brain for All Seasons:  Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change.

The Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop," first alerted the general public to how the Gulf Stream has failed many times.  From a warm-and-wet climate like today’s, the earth suddenly flips into a mode that is cool, dry, windy, and dusty.  And it has done this every few thousand years, affecting the climate not only of America and Europe but the entire world.

                The article also puzzled many friends of its author, who knew University of Washington professor William H. Calvin as the author of ten insider books about brains and evolution — not about oceanography and the need for major computer simulations of climate change dynamics.

                “But what they didn’t know was that I had been following the ice-core story for a dozen years,” Calvin explains.  “Climate change is the flip side of the coin from slow evolutionary adaptations for efficiency.  Suddenly, just within five years, all of your hard-earned efficiencies are mostly worthless.  A flip is so abrupt that adaptations cannot track it.  However our ancestors were making a living, they had to scramble for a new niche.  And then there’s another climate flip madhouse several thousand years later.”

                That’s why Calvin got to know the people who drilled ice cores in Greenland and the oceanographers who studied the Gulf Stream.  “It is only when the climate instabilities began 2.5 million years ago that our ancestors’ brains began to enlarge and they learned how to make stone tools.  I had long been interested in what those three things — ice ages, toolmaking, and bigger brains — had to do with one another.”

                Calvin’s new book, A Brain for All Seasons:  Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change,  is designed as a travelogue, as if it were a seminar by e-mail with a traveling professor.  It's about what sudden climate flips did to human  evolution, both the downsizing challenges and the  abrupt expansionistic opportunities.  It starts at the country home of Charles Darwin, just outside London, telling the story of human evolution and climate change as he visits Africa, discussing  the unusual opportunities that our ancestors got after the widespread forest fires that the sudden worldwide droughts produced.

                It ends with a flight over Greenland, looking down on sites where the Gulf Stream sinks and discussing how this conveyor belt for warmth can fail — and the prospects for postponing the next failure and the famines and wars it would spark.  It explains why gradual global warming is a likely setup for another abrupt, catastrophic cooling.


The introduction to my bookstore talks






     Unlike science writers, who are mostly journalists who find science increasingly fascinating, my books are more of an insiders view.  I seldom venture very far away from my scientific research interests - brains, higher intellectual function more generally, evolutionary mechanisms, human evolution, abrupt aspects of climate change, sociobiology and the great apes, and now linguistics.  My friends were joking the other morning about Baby Bells and Baby Bills, and didn’t I too want to be broken up into,, and so forth.
     But that would destroy what advantage, if any, that I have over the other practioneers of neurobiology, paleo­climate, linguistics and so forth.  Lots of people do the individual parts better than I do.  My only advantage is doing them all inside the same head.
     That’s in the hopes of carryover from one to another, in hopes of being the first to spot the interdisciplinary patterns - like the meterologist Alfred Wegener who proposed continental drift at a time when no geologist or geographer would believe it.  A lot of things fall between the cracks of our established scientific disciplines.  And we multidisciplinary types try to feed on them.

Answers to the usual bookstore questions:

How long, etc.?    I’ve written 11 books in 22 years, but it isn’t really two years per book. In 1996 I had two books come out in the same week.

Were my parents or grandparents writers?  No, and indeed I’m the first ever to go to college.  But there might nonetheless be some genes for writing books operating in my case.  One of my two cousins on my mother’s side also is the only person on her side of the family to ever attend college.  She too got a Ph.D.  She too has written 11 books (I just caught up with her).
     She and I both seem to have been afflicted with the salted-peanuts syndrome:  once you start, you can never get enough.  And you never finish the can because writing, like all forms of research, always raises more questions than it answers.  It’s said that science is often about posing the question in such a way that you can force nature to give you a yes-or-no answer.  Much of the skill of being a good writer consists of seeking out the illuminating questions. And there’s no end to that.

"[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 the New Scientist
 (23 November 1996)

The Feature Article

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:

Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
William H. Calvin

from the University of Chicago Press.  It is 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 paleoanthropology as well. 


To:          Human Evolution E-Seminar
From:        William H. Calvin
Lake Naivasha
Droughts even in good times







Here at Lake Naivasha, there are also hippos in the night (mama, papa, and junior, I was told at breakfast by the cousin [BTW, this is a different cousin, she's a visiting professor in Kenya], who asked the watchman to wake her up when they appeared).  The watchmen here usually chase the hippos away, at least when tourists aren’t awake to see them....

           Only 26 km west of here, up the Mau Escarpment, is Enkapune Ya Muto rock shelter (“Twilight Cave”), currently a hot topic because it contains the earliest evidence of beads - such decorative art is the first evidence of the modern mind.  About 50,000 years old, it is earlier than in  Europe (where cave art is the more spectacular evidence).  All of those millions of years of bigger brains, and finally evidence of thinking somewhat like us.

           A short boat ride away is Crescent Island, where one can walk, in the company of a guide with whom the herds are familiar, among the giraffes and waterbuck and gazelles.  Obsidian flakes are everywhere, some of which are just the sort that hominid  tool­makers would have prized.  Some microliths can be found here, even hafted ones from a few thousand years ago.  The reason that volcanic glass is so prevalent is that, just offshore, there’s an old volcano lurking in the depths.

            My cousin kept exclaiming over the obsidian, passing me one flake after another.  I kept saying, after a brief inspection, that the proffered flake was probably not archaeological, but merely happen­stance.  Still, if you were in the objet trouvé stage of tool use, this island would have been heaven, what with such single-edged razorblades everywhere.  Such a place could have been where hominids discovered the virtues of sharp edges and, when they exhausted the local supply, made the transition from found-object tool use to Glynn Isaac’s shatter-and-search toolmaking.

           The giraffes and the archaeologically suggestive obsidian flakes are surely the reason why most people visit Crescent  Island, but I actually came because of reading about the climate cores recently drilled offshore.  Crescent Island Crater is underwater, just offshore.  Old volcanic craters are not uncommon hereabouts, but the significance of this one is that it provided a protected underwater basin from which comes a lake-bottom core, one with a nice 1,100-year-long record of local climate, showing all its ups and downs via the inferred salinity of the old lake bottom layers.

            The story told by the Crescent  Island  crater sediments is that the Medieval Warm Period (from about 500 to 1315) was a bad time for Africa.  It is known from other sources that these were years of drought-
induced famine, political unrest, and large-scale migration of tribes.  What the cores say is that the lake shrank dramatically, and for many decades at a time.

          Paradoxically, the Little Ice Age (roughly 1315-1865, when most of the world was generally about 1°C  cooler, thanks to one of those minor 1,500-year-long climate rhythms) was a good time in  East Africa, thanks to how it affected East African rain­fall.  The good times were relatively uneventful periods of political stability, consolidation of kingdoms, and agricultural success.  And thus growth of populations.  

But what interrupted even the five-century-long good times in  East Africa were serious episodes of bad times.  Such were concentrated in three periods...  when Lake Naivasha (and many a big lake in East Africa) was shrunken and salty.

          So, even in the absence of human modification of climate via fossil fuels and cutting down forests, it looks as if Africa is subject to episodes of pro­longed (30, 65, and 80 years) drought even in otherwise good times.  And if you live elsewhere, don’t feel smug about your ancestors having had the good sense to emigrate from  Africa (everyone’s ancestors used to live here 50,000 years ago)....

           Droughts are often regional, such as the Dust Bowl of American Midwest and Great Plains from 1931-1939.  Numerous farms had to be abandoned, and overall agricultural productivity dropped sharply; my mother tells me that when it rained in Kansas City, it rained mud....

         Sometimes there are seesaws operating, where one region improves at the expense of another.  But there are also some droughts that are worldwide, everywhere getting hit at about the same time.  Everyone loses (except maybe for the waterhole  predators), almost everywhere (except maybe Antarctica and the  South Atlantic Ocean, where few people can live).  They are the aforementioned “abrupt cooling episodes” but they could equally well be called “severe drought episodes” or “dust storm centuries.”  Temperature is often the easiest thing to measure, thanks to the oxygen isotope ratio correlating with air temperature, but it is not necessarily the most relevant.

           We tend to concentrate on the downside of droughts because of all the human misery they cause.  But an evolutionary biologist also looks at the recovery, because the transition is often a boom time.  Things become possible in boom times that are difficult in the more static periods before and after the transition period.


Former lake in Namibia



Drought at shrunken Lake Nakuru, Kenya


Ephemeral waterhole in the Serengeti
(all from A Brain for All Seasons)




Read more from 
A Brain for All Seasons


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William H. Calvin