William H. Calvin, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, is the author of 16 popular books on science, mostly about brains, human evolution, and climate change.



brief bio


William H. Calvin

University of Washington

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A Walk Through Time is 75 posters spanning the Big Bang to the Big Brain and Beyond, suitable for spacing out down a long corridor.


[W]e human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the only ones who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we're even beginning to figure out how we got here.
- the philosopher DANIEL C. DENNETT  

The five lectures (for a general audience)





BOOKS more...

Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change

    click to order from amazon.com   click to order from amazon.com  click to order from amazon.com  click to order from amazon.com  click to order from amazon.com

William H. Calvin, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, is the author of 16 popular books on science, mostly about brains, evolution, and climate change. They have been translated into 15 languages. He won the Phi Beta Kappa book prize for science as literature. His occasional magazine articles include an Atlantic Monthly cover story, "The Great Climate Flip-flop." His most recent books, starting with Global Fever, are about global overheating and what to do about it. The Great Climate Leap attempts a major reframing of how we view the climate threats. Our biggest problem is no longer future emissions and climate creep; it is the excess CO2 we already have and the climate leaps that have already begun. The Great CO2 Cleanup undertakes a major reframing of what we should be doing about them: a short-term massive cleanup of CO2 in addition to the emission reductions needed for the long term. "We have three big problems-overheating, ocean acidification, and abrupt climate shifts. It's a triple threat. Any menu of climate choices that ignores the second and third is a dangerous oversimplification. We are indeed fortunate that one set of undo actions-cleaning up the excess CO2-will address all three."


Psychological factors are now playing a key role in our failure to address the looming climate crisis. While analyzing what's going on the psychology, I'll summarize the climate science that's being denied, including the knock-on consequences of global overheating that we're already suffering from.
For physicians, the window of opportunity for intervening successfully has become part of their training; they know how fleeting an opportunity can be. So here's a "second opinion" about the climate diagnosis, the prognosis if untreated, and what treatments might actually fix the climate problem—rather than merely delaying civilization's collapse by a few decades.


Carbon sequestration must be big and quick

This what-to-do-about-it lecture (also available as a podcast mp3) for UW oceanography focuses on abrupt climate changes since 1976, how to head off more, and how to use the oceans to sequester enough carbon. Several slides are for the experts, but the rest is suitable for a general scientific audience. Others familiar with the climate story will be able to follow it as well.
A 2009 televised lecture given by William H. Calvin at the University of Victoria on global warming, beginning with an eloquent introduction by Colin Campbell.



A lecture for NASA's Green Series at the Langley Research Center by Prof. William H. Calvin of the University of Washington in Seattle.

Sea level is rising, heat waves are killing, oceans acidifying, coral reefs bleaching, fisheries declining, deserts expanding, and unfamiliar insects arriving. Hurricanes are stronger. Each decade since 1950, there have been more floods and more wildfires.

The climate doctors have been consulted; the lab reports have come back. Now it's time to pull together the Big Picture and discuss treatment options.

The diagnosis? The Earth is now dressed too warmly. We're causing our planet to run a fever as we keep piling on those invisible greenhouse-gas blankets generated by cutting down forests, making cement, constantly tilling the soil, spreading fertilizer, leaking natural gas, and—worst of all—burning coal, oil, and natural gas.

The outlook is for much more global fever and major ... more
A televised lecture on the climate crisis by William H. Calvin, given in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, December 2007.

Thanks to upsetting our climate with a series of low-tech practices such as cutting down forests, tilling the soil, and—worst of all—burning fossil fuels, we are rapidly approaching a use-it-or-lose-it intelligence test.

The outlook is for a higher fever, with droughts that just won't quit. Extreme weather will keep trashing the place. Tipping points will lead to demolition derbies, as when the Amazon or Borneo rain forest burns, or a major city is inundated.  

Absent effective treatment of climate disease, the students of today will face an unpleasant, chaotic future—not merely hotter summers. Unless we get our act together very quickly—the next ten years—and on a global scale, our legacy could be genocidal downsizing.

Yet all we hear about is a low-carbon energy diet over the decades: conserve energy, emphasiz... more

Color slides in PDF (might wish to download before watching video).

Professor William H. Calvin giving The President's Lecture, Rice University 2007. Similar to Beijing lecture. Also as mp3 Podcast.

SLIDES for Houston in PDF

What I did back before climate change became so urgent

The Evolution of Human Minds click to order from amazon.com

The Gothenburg lecture by William H. Calvin, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The beyond-the-apes story starts about 7 million years ago. To understand the emergence of mind -- and particularly the higher aspects of consciousness that so set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom -- we need to understand what the great apes are capable of. And what they don't do.      

It is just in the last 1 percent of that up-from-the-apes period that human creativity and technological capabilities have really blossomed. It's been called "The Mind's Big Bang." In our usual expansive sense of "mind," the history of the mind is surprisingly brief, certainly when compared with the long increase in brain size and the halting march of tool making. What came before was not, as we usually assume, a series of increasing approximations to the modern mind. So what set the stage for this creative explosion?  We tend to see ourselves as the... more


  1. "How to Treat Global Fever: An Intelligence Test for Our Times" is available as a Rice University 53' podcast mp3

  2. "Climate creep and climate leap" is in radio shorts format as a 26' mp3 file or as six 4-7' segments: 1 2 3 4 5 6

  3. The UW oceanography talk is available as a 53' podcast mp3. This is the more advanced version of the carbon sequestration aspect, addressing the oceanographers' concerns.

  4. I was interviewed for an hour on NPR's The Connection, talking about brains, climate, and bounceback.

  5. My hour-long KUOW interview on human evolution and the emergence of intellect (apropos A Brief History of the Mind). 

  1. 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.


  2. 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 WCBR 2005 is available as webbed slides with narration.

  3. Think Ahead (But How?)
    click to order it from amazon
    How do we generate on-the-fly novelty of high quality? Which we do every time we speak a sentence that we’ve never spoken before. Or a contingent plan for the weekend, an alternative in case it rains. We are often right the first time, even when novel. So HOW do we weed out the nonsense? Gradually improve our plan? Avoid getting stuck? Recognize a coherent answer, the perfect fit to our current situation? The Dusseldorf lecture.

  4. 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.

  5. 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 Seattle University keynote slides are here.

Notes and Interviews
  • KUOW, replay of a long radio interview about A Brain for All Seasons. Ditto for Lingua ex machina.
  • I make a few appearances in Spencer Wells' The Journey of Man on PBS and National Geographic channel worldwide. Now in re-runs.

    General information for lecture organizers
    (bio, tag lines, CV, photos)