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Workshop 5

“Anthropogenic Climate Destabilization: A Worst-case Scenario”
Participant Biography

September 12–14, 2008 | Bellevue, Washington

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William H. Calvin

William H. Calvin, Ph.D., a theoretical neurobiologist, is Affiliate Professor Emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He is also affiliated with Emory University’s great apes project, the Great Ape Trust of Iowa, and on the Board of Advisors of Foundation For the Future.

His 1998 cover story for The Atlantic Monthly, “The Great Climate Flip-flop,” grew out of a long-standing interest in abrupt climate change and how it influenced the evolution of a chimpanzee-like brain into a more human one. He addressed the same topic in his 2002 book, A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change, which won the Phi Beta Kappa Book Award for Science and the 2006 Walter P. Kistler Book Award.

Calvin has written a dozen books for general readers. A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond (2004) addresses what led up to the “Mind’s Big Bang” about 50,000 years ago, a creative explosion compared to the very conservative trends in tool-making over the previous 2.5 million years. That span featured two million-year-long periods without much progress – despite the growth in brain size.

Calvin’s neurobiology research interests primarily concern the neocortical circuits used for detailed planning and for improving the quality of the plan as you “get set,” presumably utilizing a milliseconds-to-minutes version of the same Darwinian process (copying competitions biased by natural selection) seen in the immune response and species evolution on longer timescales. His research monograph, The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996), concerns Darwinian processes in neural circuitry that can operate on the timescale of thought and action to resolve ambiguity and shape up novel courses of action. He also collaborated with the linguist Derek Bickerton to write Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (2000) about the evolution of syntax.

Following studies in physics at Northwestern University, Calvin branched out into neurophysiology via studies at MIT, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Washington (Ph.D., physiology and biophysics, 1966).