77 North Washington Street

William Calvin

ALTHOUGH William H. Calvin, the author of this month's cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop," says that he is "not primarily an author," readers would be forgiven for assuming that he does nothing but write. A theoretical neurophysiologist at the University of Washington at Seattle, Calvin has written nine books, including five in the past seven years and two ( and ) just last year. But he also maintains a punishingly busy schedule as a researcher, investigating how brains work and evolve, and travels extensively on the lecture circuit. Readers would therefore also be forgiven for wondering why Calvin devotes so much of his precious time to following the study of climate change.

The answer, Calvin says, is that the evolution of the human mind is intimately linked to abrupt climate change: our brains seem to have begun their transformation from apelike to fully human just when temperatures on earth began their current trend of jumping rapidly -- often within a single lifetime -- between warm and cold. Calvin argues that in the context of brief environmental opportunities (periods of warmth) and hazards (sudden icy temperatures), survival for our ancestors became dependent on having highly agile, "jack-of-all-trades" minds. The flip-flop of climates, in other words, led to the evolution of brains that could themselves flip-flop abruptly between strategies for survival. In describing the minds that we have ended up with, Calvin is fond of referring to a passage by William James that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in October, 1880. "Instead of thoughts of concrete things patiently following one another," James wrote,

we have the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another, the most rarefied abstractions and discriminations, the most unheard-of combinations ... we seem suddenly introduced into a seething caldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity.

Creative thinking is now more important than ever. A central point in "The Great Climate Flip-flop" is that the greenhouse gases we pump daily into the atmosphere may well trigger an abrupt global cooling. But if we have helped to bring on such a problem, we are also the only creatures on the planet with brains highly enough evolved to solve it -- and solve it we must, even if, as Calvin points out, it won't make our brains any larger. --THE EDITORS

For more information on William Calvin and his writings, see his personal Web site.

The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 281, No. 1; page 6.