Books by William H. Calvin

Released: March 1, 2004

"As always, the author's erudition demands close attention but makes science entertaining and accessible for the layman."
How the mental life of humans has come to differ from that of the other great apes, and speculations about what lies ahead. Read full book review >
Released: Sept. 11, 1996

Neurophysiologist Calvin (The Ascent of Mind: Ice Age Climate and the Evolution of Intelligence, 1990, etc.) continues to explore the human mind in a lively, erudite fashion, this time drawing on evolutionary biology, ethology, linguistics, and neuroscience. He begins by distinguishing consciousness, or awareness, from intelligence (``the high-end scenery of neurophysiology'' encompassing foresight, speed, and creativity) and then considers the likely evolution of human intelligence. He argues that syntax, the structuring of relative relationships in a mental model of things, is what human levels of intelligence are mostly about, and to understand why humans are so intelligent, we need to understand how our primate ancestors evolved syntax from the more limited communicative abilities of apes. Calvin argues that not only did a Darwinian process shape a better brain over two million years, but that the same process operating within the brain might explain how the brain gives shape to thoughts and makes decisions. An image emerges of cerebral codes that copy themselves, compete with other cerebral codes, and develop new variations. Calvin tries to help the nonscientist along with clever illustrations and analogies, such as his Rube Goldbergstyle mechanical ``Vacuum-Lifter Package-Carrying System'' to explain how sentences are understood, but close attention is required at all times. In his concluding chapter he considers some of the implications of artificial intelligence, i.e., a computer that simulates brain processes and is capable of abstraction, imagery, talking, planning, and decision making. What values would we want these silicon beings to have, and how would humans fare in competition with them? Challenging and rewarding. As always, Calvin's thinking about thinking gives plenty of food for thought. Read full book review >
Released: May 1, 1994

A demanding but rewarding report that illuminates what neurology can now tell us about the human brain. Calvin (Neurophysiology/Univ. of Washington) and Ojemann, a neurosurgeon, collaborated previously on Inside the Brain (not reviewed), which, like the present book, followed a patient named Neil through neurosurgery. Here, Neil is a composite of several temporal-lobe epileptics. Calvin, who narrates this first-person account, opens with an operating room scene in which Ojemann will remove part of Neil's brain in an attempt to end his epileptic seizures. During part of the procedure, Neil is awake and participating actively in various tests, some designed to locate specific areas in his brain that will be either spared or removed by the surgeon, and some conducted in the interests of research. Calvin presents Neil as an intelligent, curious layman with whom he meets regularly in the hospital cafeteria, where Neil asks leading questions about the brain and Calvin answers them at considerable length. All but one of these conversations take place before Neil's operation, and they make up most of the book. Subjects explored include the functional organization of the brain, why strokes in certain areas have certain effects, consciousness, memory, mood and thought disorders, vision, and language. Though written for the general reader, the text occasionally assumes considerable familiarity with the concepts and terminology of neurology. Black-and-white drawings intended to clarify the text unfortunately sometimes have the opposite effect, for they can be discouragingly technical, but this a relatively minor flaw. For the persistent and serious reader the text is full of information that indicates how far the human mind has come in understanding the brain and yet how much remains to be learned. High marks for being both instructive and entertaining. Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 15, 1991

Neurobiologist Calvin (The Ascent of Mind, 1990; The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain, 1983) tackles an unlikely subject—archaeoastronomy—and brings to it his scientific training, a lively curiosity, and the ability to describe objects and phenomena clearly. Archaeoastronomy is Calvin's hobby, and he pursues it in Anasazi ruins in the American Southwest and in the remains of Stonehenge on England's Salisbury Plain. Describing a dozen simple methods to predict lunar eclipses that could have been used by ancient peoples, plus a couple of ways to detect an impending solar eclipse, Calvin argues the likelihood that the ability to forecast such celestial events preceded civilization. In doing so, he shows us a scientific mind at work, asking questions, collecting data, revising theories, seeking new evidence. His descriptions of camping out in Arizona's Canyon de Chelly and New Mexico's Chaco Canyon to test and refine his theories are fascinating. He is less successful, however, at explaining what it all means. In what ways did early forecasters- -shamans, prophets, or protoscientists—signal the beginnings of religion and/or science, what powers did they wield, and what roles did they play in shaping their societies? Calvin conjectures freely on these and other questions, tossing out notions and then inexplicably abandoning them, leaving ideas unresolved and the reader up in the air. Perhaps that's his intent, but it's ultimately unsatisfying. One wishes he had spent as much time exploring the significance of archaeoastronomers as he does in persuading us of their probable existence. Still, lively and literate science for the nonscientist. (Fifty-nine line drawings—not seen.) Read full book review >

An eloquent, spirited look at the relationship between climate and human evolution, by the author of The Throwing Madonna: From Nervous Cells to Hominid Brain (1983). Calvin (Neurophysiology/Univ. of Washington) has one basic point to make: that "matching wits with the fickle environment is how we became human." He explores this thesis in large part by poking around past ice ages, seeing how glaciers, toolmaking, and larger brains (the "Great Encephalization" of the human stock) "bootstrapped" each other—that is, mutually interacted—to produce George Bush, Madonna, et al. For the most part, he argues, evolutionary leaps (i.e., punctuated equilibrium) rather than agonizingly slow change led to modern Homo sapiens, with climatic fluctuations as the "pumping mechanism." The upshot? A creature especially adapted to function well in diverse climates; it is our flexibility on icecap or desert that insures our survival. En route to this happy conclusion, Calvin presents a scenario of the next ice age, salutes Neanderthal man, describes an airline flightover the North Pole, and attends a convention in Hungary probing extraterrestrial intelligence. A clear, tightly organized entry in the spate of recent books about nature that double as high literature; further evidence that this may well be the golden age of science writing. Read full book review >