William H. Calvin, "Bookstore talks." See also

revised book titles, 2/2002
Webbed Lecture Collection
This 'tree' is really a pyramidal neuron of cerebral cortex.  The axon exiting at bottom goes long distances, eventually splitting up into 10,000 small branchlets to make synapses with other brain cells.
William H. Calvin

University of Washington
Seattle WA 98195-1800 USA


Bookstore talks (27 March 2000, 20 July 2000)


          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, didnít I 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, paleo≠climate, linguistics and so forth.  Lots of people do the individual parts better than I do.  My only advantage is, in doing them all inside the same head. Thatís 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.

         Organization of evening talk:

         Listeners often want to know how you got hooked on writing - on the theory that itís like other addictions, certainly gambling - so I thought that Iíd begin with a little author background.  And maybe survey the other nine books a little.

         Then say a few words about the new book, indeed read aloud the opening and play a tape of my co-author reading his section that follows.

         This will inevitably lead us into questions of how evolution does things to make us more capable (or at least more complicated).


Statistics tell you very little. 

         Iíve written ten books in 20 years, but it isnít 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 Iím 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 motherís 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 ten 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 I suppose, always raises more questions than it answers.  Itís 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 thereís no end to that.


Writers background

         I actually learned to write for general readers between the ages of 14 and 17, in high school near Kansas City - not because I had an ambition to write but just from the usual accidents of opportunity.  Photos to sports to school paper, great teacher. 

         I spent the next 20 years writing standard academic prose, no better than that of my colleagues.  But periodically I got pressed into service to write press releases about the work of colleagues.  That I could do it easily made me realize how much of the mindset Iíd retained from high school journalism, about how to address the reader for whom reading this piece was optional, not essential or required.

         Sabbaticals are supposed to broaden your horizons - and indeed mine in 1978 as visiting professor of neurobiology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem stirred up some old interests in anthropology and archaeology.  But more than that, it created the time in which I could write my first book.  I didnít write it in Jerusalem.  No, I merely caught hepatitis there, came home to recuperate, and was too weak for six months to do much else besides sit at a typewriter.  George Ojemann and I had long been half-joking about writing a book on our noncredit course, and hepatitis is how INSIDE THE BRAIN (1980) finally got done.

         And I had so much fun (in retrospect at least) doing it that I promptly decided to write another book.  Iíd taken a Grand Canyon float trip in 1976 and thought it was a great way to describe the course of human evolution, to tell the story as a river diary.  The only trouble is that my writing skills werenít up to describing either the scenery or the people.  Thatís where my second book came from, The Throwing Madonna (1983):  those 17 essays are writing exercises that I set for myself, so that I could undertake the third book, The River that Flows Uphill (1986).

         The fourth book, Cerebral Symphony, was set at Woods Hole, Cape Cod, seashore reflections on the structure of consciousness.  It was my first attempt at trying to find a Darwinian solution to the problem of doing novel things for the first time without it being nonsense, how thoughts could be shaped up offline before speaking them aloud.  Since about 1977, Iíd been intrigued with the mental Darwinism problem and trying to get behind the generalities to the underlying cellular and circuit mechanisms.  It wasnít until 1991-1996 that I did a better job of the latter, so SYMPHONY mostly has to stand on literary metaphors applied to brain mechanisms, not serious proposals for the circuitry itself. 

         THE ASCENT OF MIND (1990) is really the 2d half of SYMPHONY (1989), all the anthro and human evolution aspects, the first time that I wrote about abrupt climate change.  Very influential in my career because Freeman Dyson read it.  And liked it, and kept telling editors about it when asked for advise;  it led to my invitations in 1993 from Scientific American and again in 1997 from the Atlantic Monthly.

         Then I finally made the time to write a book about my hobby of the 1980s, trying to figure out some entry-level eclipse prediction methods.  HOW THE SHAMAN STOLE THE MOON (1991) is really about how science could have gotten started, and its early payoffs.  All the aforementioned books are now out of print in the US, though used books on the web is a good bet.  If you want, you can order Dutch, Japanese, and German translations. For reasons I donít understand, Iím more popular abroad than in the US.

         But then in 1991, I had a good scientific idea about the darwinian aspects of brain circuits.  I figured out the circuits that could turn the Darwinian crank that improves the quality from generation to generation, and how to do it in known brain circuitry.  [If Iím ever remembered for anything from my scientific work, it might be that.]  And it took the next five years to work it out and get it published as an academic monograph - but I couldnít resist trying to make it a popular book of it as well.  And indeed THE CEREBRAL CODE (1996) has since come out in paperback and, this year, there will be a German translation.  In the meantime, GAO and I redid our first book (Conversations with Neilís Brain 1994), and I wrote a popular book, How Brains Think, thatís getting a dozen translations.  It and CODE came out within a week of each other back in the late summer of 1996.

         Finally I had time to work with the linguist Derek Bickerton on a book weíd been planning for four years on Chomskyís problem of Universal Grammar and how the brain could do it - and how evolution could have gotten it started.

         Clearly we needed an intense period of discussion and writing, so we applied to the Rockefeller FoundationÖ.  The leisure of the theoried classÖ. Decided in first week to write the book aimed at dinner-table conversation at Bellagio, the serious reader in other areas:  history, music, poets, polysci.   Postcards and own pictures on web. 

         [Read first chapter, play Derek reading his part.]        

         My 2002 book, A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, takes the Atlantic Monthly article and puts human evolution in the context of hundreds of such abrupt coolings in the last 2.5 mya. 

Related books and their links:

William H. Calvin, The Cerebral Code (1996)

William H. Calvin and Derek Bickerton,
  Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain  
(MIT Press, 2000).

 Search: Enter keywords... logo || Home Page || Calvin publication list || The Calvin Bookshelf ||