the brief bio
16 June 2004

William H. Calvin


"I talk a lot about ape-to-human evolution and all those abrupt climate changes along the way, even about civilization's vulnerabilities to abrupt shocks. But mostly I try to extend Darwin's intellectual revolution to brain mechanisms. What sort of Darwinian brain wiring allows us, in just a split second, to shape up a better thought?  To create quality from mere incoherence?"

WILLIAM H. CALVIN, Ph.D., is a theoretical neurobiologist, Affiliate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle.  He is the author of a dozen books, mostly for general readers, about brains and evolution. The latest is A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond. Out in paperback is A Brain for All Seasons:  Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, about paleoanthropology, paleoclimate, and considerations from neurobiology and evolutionary biology, which won the 2002 Phi Beta Kappa book award for science.  His book with Derek Bickerton, Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain, is about the evolution of structured language.  His research interests include the recurrent excitatory circuitry of cerebral cortex used for split-second versions of the Darwinian bootstrapping of quality, the four-fold enlargement of the hominid brain during the ice ages, and the brain reorganization for language and planning during "The Mind's Big Bang" which occurred about 50,000 years ago, long after our brains had reached their current size.

For the standard lecture-organizer stuff (and pitfalls to avoid), see the author page.  There's also a narrative bio.

The best of the short book reviews, from The Virginia Quarterly Review 78:139, Autumn 2002

      "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.  He mixes very difficult and momentous topics with simple momentary observations, placing his enormous subjects into a personal, humanistic, and conversational perspective.  A lot of rough edges and uncertainties are neglected in his presentation of controversial topics.  This permits speculation to achieve a maximal 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."


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 UW Psychiatry Grand Rounds is available as webbed slides (remember to click the mouse to advance slides).

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 slides for my Cerebral Circuits talk will give you the general idea.


Examples of 10-20 minute talks


To browse a copy of one of my books, click on a cover for the link to 

A Brief History of the Mind, 2004
A Brief History of the Mind
, 2004

A Brain for All Seasons, 2002
A Brain for All Seasons

Lingua ex Machina:  Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (Calvin & Bickerton, 2000)
Lingua ex Machina

The Cerebral Code:  Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996)
The Cerebral Code

How Brains Think:  Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (1996)
How Brains Think

Conversations with Neil's Brain:  The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (Calvin & Ojemann, 1994)
Conversations with
Neil's Brain

The River That Flows Uphill
The River That
Flows Uphill


The Throwing Madonna:  Essays on the Brain
The Throwing Madonna

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William H. Calvin
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