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William H. Calvin
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The River That Flows Uphill (Sierra Club Books 1987) is my river diary of a two-week whitewater trip through the bottom of the Grand Canyon, discussing everything from the Big Bang to the Big Brain. It became a bestseller in German translation in 1995. AVAILABILITY limited; the US edition is now out of print. There are German and Dutch translations in print.
The River That Flows Uphill
A Journey from the Big Bang
to the Big Brain

Copyright 1986 by William H. Calvin.

You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).


The test of a book (to a writer) is if it makes a space in which, quite naturally, you can say what you want to say.
................VIRGINIA WOOLF
While this is a work of nonfiction, some incidents have become a collage for rhetorical purposes, some characters have become chimeras, some material imported from off the river, and certainly four Colorado River trips have been amalgamated into one. I hope that the Canyon boatmen will forgive me if I have inadvertently put someone's favorite Canyon story into the mouth of another. The boatmen are people like those that John Maynard Keynes had in mind when he said:
We shall once more ... prefer the good to the useful. We shall honour those who teach us how to pluck the hour and the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct enjoyment in things.
And I must thank them all. My friends Alan R. Fisk-Williams and Susan P. Bassett, two professional boatmen from whom I learned much about the Canyon, were of great help with an early draft of this book; I hope that no errors regarding the river have crept in since they last annotated the manuscript. My wife, Katherine Graubard, periodically gave me the benefit of her thinking, including the cognitive-dissonance title of the book. Two skillful volunteer editors have aided me far beyond any call of duty: Blanche Kazon Graubard and Kathryn Moen Braeman. Everyone should be so lucky. Among the readers of the first draft, particularly helpful comments were made by Beatrice Bruteau, John DuBois, Michelle DuBois, Seymour Graubard, Dan Hartline, Christine Phillips, Dan Richard, and Beverly Williams. Students in my undergraduate honors course on brains and evolution were influential in helping me decide what subject matter could be included for general readers; Ajit Limaye and Laurel Brown later undertook to red-pencil the professor's writing efforts and were most helpful. The author Michael Talbot, together with my literary agent John Brockman, wisely persuaded me to abandon my early plans for writing the book in fictional format. The careful editing by Charles Levine and Robert Niewig at Macmillan considerably improved the manuscript. The Grand Canyon anthropologist Robert C. Euler extended many kindnesses to me; Barbara Isaac, the late Glynn Isaac, and their anthropology students at Harvard University greatly aided my knowledge of African archaeology. My University of Washington colleagues John Edwards, Joan Lockard, John Loeser, George Ojemann, John Palka, Robert Pinter, Wayne Potts, and Dennis Willows have steered me in the right direction on many occasions; the Quaternary Research Center's lecture series arranged by Stephen Porter was invaluable. The neurobiologist David G. King stimulated my thinking on evolutionary biology and sidesteps. I am most grateful to all of them.

I feel a special gratitude toward brains, evolution, and the Grand Canyon. Writers sometimes feel as if they have been taken over by a book: it develops a life of its own, proclaims its own imperatives, almost writes itself once the framework is established; one has to somehow live up to its expectations. When I ran across Virginia Woolf's comment, it reinforced what I had long felt: that the present combination of subject and setting was an unparalleled opportunity to say what many scientists would like to convey about science to their nonscientist friends. On the first trip that I took down the Colorado River in 1975, half of the passengers were neurobiologists. And half were nonscientists who, on balance, reminded me of what someone once described as the old lawyer who courteously probes for the facts but who expects to draw his own conclusions. It was that trip which made me aware of how an easier dialogue between scientists and nonscientists could develop.

But this book is not that 1975 trip except in inspiration. Nor is it the eclipse trip, though connoisseurs of the Nautical Almanac will find that the movements of the sun and moon match those of the first half of July 1982. The book's two weeks are, rather, a medley of events which took more than two years to write down. The facts and interpretations are almost entirely part of the published scientific literature; only a few (such as my parking-garage metaphor and my squeeze-the-center, expand-the-periphery ice age ratchet) make their first appearance here. Particularly outside neurobiology, many of the interpretations are adapted from someone else's lecture or popular article. But most of the speculations -- such as those about archaeoastronomy, post-aquatic monogamy, cryptic selection, big brains, consciousness, music, and auxiliary memories -- can be assigned to me.

I still haven't figured out how to describe going through a rapid, except as seen through my own eyes; were I a properly trained writer, I wouldn't have had to use the first-person. And it does present some problems to a scientist. I found myself "switching hats" constantly: sometimes authoritatively describing science, sometimes speculating and attempting to convey less assurance, sometimes participating in the exaggerated overstatement that replaces careful understatement as getting-away-from-it-all sets in. Even serious scientists become silly. In attempting to capture some of the feel of a river trip, I have not always adequately qualified statements, both scientific (beaver and bird behavior are more complex than presented; see the end-notes) and nonscientific (surely Phoenix, Las Vegas, and the Glen Canyon Dam have some good points; inquire at the appropriate Chamber of Commerce). The end-notes cannot fully counterbalance textual omissions, but in them I have tried to point to more complete treatments, at least for scientific topics.

In the case of the big-brain problem, I attempted to discuss appropriate criteria for an explanation, give a balanced view of alternative proposals for both how the biology varies and how/where/when selection might operate upon those variants, and then -- hopefully having armed the reader with a basis for making one's own evaluation -- present my favorite hypothesis for consideration. The reader should be aware that many other topics in this book could be similarly qualified but -- because of the river-diary format and space limitations -- the full pros-and-cons treatment has had to be reduced down to my favorite story. This book, I hope, makes no pretense of being an unbiased digest of respectable anthropological and biological opinion; it's a personal view and not a general consensus.

The extensive bibliography in my 1983 essay book, The Throwing Madonna, may be of more use to the serious student than the present end-notes; that book was written as a warmup for this river book, and has a more complete discussion of some of the behavioral and neurophysiological topics, especially throwing per se and its implications for language. My ideas about self-organizing systems, the implications of throwing machinery for consciousness and music, and the oscillating ice-age frontier (pumping up brain size by compressing the central population but then expanding the more versatile frontier population) have largely developed since that book was written.

The river stories, such as the "freeze-dried tadpoles" or the passenger who swore so creatively while swimming a rapid, have often been modified to help make a scientific point. I have even embroidered a few: for example, to Alan's tadpoles, I added the dehydrated C-Minor cicadas. The genetic-code necklace is pure invention; however, the scene that would be another logical candidate for a contrived story for didactic purposes, the scientist who got news of his father's unusual stroke while at the lone outpost of civilization, and then hiked out of the mile-deep Canyon, is unfortunately true; it was my father. I like to think that he would have enjoyed this book. He would certainly have loved the river trip and all the science.

Winter 1986

[Continue to End Notes]

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