the real thing

brief bio
The Bookshelf

William H. Calvin       
Alas (spam), it is an image. You'll need to type it.

 University of Washington

This is the one-page "executive summary."  You probably want to browse through the real thing instead.  It's a long scroll though pictures, books, articles, interviews, and public lectures.

No?  Well, I puzzle over how humans evolved from the great apes.  I look back, using what I know about the chimps and bonobos, and ask what changed in the brain to give us a whole suite of higher intellectual functions.  They are structured stuff like planning ahead, polyphonic music, games with rules, the syntax needed for long sentences, chains of logic and the search for how things hang together, just so.

After WHAT comes WHERE, WHEN, and WHY, I take excursions into archaeology and the human fossil record.  What really speeds up evolution is climate change, and not so much the slow changes of the ice age but the really rapid stuff like droughts and cold snaps worldwide, and within 10 years.

The usual bigger-is-better assumption is that bigger brains are more intelligent.  For the land mammals in general, that is approximately correct but it doesn't seem to answer the major puzzles of ape-to-human evolution.

There were several million-year-long periods when toolmaking techniques didn't make any progress, despite the brain enlarging quite a lot.  That means that a bigger brain (for some other reason such as language or social complexity) didn't feed back to improve toolmaking.  Alas, no general increase in cleverness resulted.

William H. CalvinWorse, the flowering of creativity comes only in the last 1% of the ape-to-human journey.  And that's about 100,000 years after people that looked like us Homo sapiens, big brain and all were wandering around Africa.  That means the big brain, by itself, isn't sufficient to produce our kind of creative intellect.  So what happened, about 50,000 years ago, to change everything human?  To make us capable of contemplating the future?

But HOW?  I try to extend Darwin's intellectual revolution to brain mechanisms.  To do anything creative, you have to sort through the nonsense.  What sort of Darwinian brain wiring allows us, in just a split second, to shape up a better thought?  To speak a sentence we've never uttered before? To create quality from mere incoherence?

For WHAT NEXT, I ask 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.

--William H. Calvin


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revised 2004-09-27 12:27