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A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change Hardcover – April 15, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

Imagine going to the first meeting of a course you'd long waited to enroll in. You sit down at your computer, open an e-mail message from your professor, in this case the author William H. Calvin, and get your first lesson. Your professor is thousands of miles away. In fact, he's at 51.4oN, 0.1oE. Where? Why, Charles Darwin's home in Kent, England, of course, the famous Down House. So begins Calvin's journey through evolution, particularly human evolution, as he leads his "class" from the home of the man many would call the father of evolution to various locales that provide fodder for his ultimate message: human evolution, like that of other organisms, is not a gradual transformation of form and behavior over time. Rather, like the shifts in the environments in which organisms find themselves, evolutionary change is abrupt, even catastrophic. A neurobiologist by training (he is at the University of Washington School of Medicine), Calvin leads us along a trail that links sudden worldwide coolings to the origin of our large brains and modern human behavior. By modern behavior, he is thinking not just of sophisticated toolmaking; he includes such social behavior as pair bonding and, ultimately, language, a sense of the aesthetic, and "abstract thinking, planning depth, innovation, and symbolic behavior." The sudden coolings, Calvin tells us, reduced rainfall, induced dust storms and fires, and produced bottlenecks in the populations of our forebears. The few survivors had to adapt within one generation to, for example, a climate in which only grass grew well, spurring them to develop innovative techniques for hunting the large grazing animals that converted the grass into edible energy. Thus, he concludes, the cycles of "cool, crash, and burn" drove increased brain size and complexity. I think it unlikely that the climatic shifts were behind changes in the physical size and complexity of the brain, but these sudden jolts could certainly have spurred early humans to exploit the existing potential of the brain. To make his points, Calvin takes us, his class, on a peripatetic journey as he visits museums, attends conferences, pays homage to a variety of African human fossil sites, and flies over huge African expanses and the vast Nordic seas. As one might expect, this approach is not always successful, but if you forget the formatting at the beginning of each brief chapter (a nod toward an e-mail message, but one without typos, code abbreviations and non sequiturs), the read flows a bit better. Calvin's premise--that human evolution is correlated with climatic swings--is, of course, not new. Indeed, the traditional Darwinian view holds that evolution proceeds through organisms tracking their environments. And well over a decade ago paleontologist Elisabeth Vrba proposed that changes in species representation over time, as evidenced especially in the South African fossil record of antelopes and early hominids (such as Australopithecus and Paranthropus), were rapid and correlated with shifts between wetter and drier conditions. But Calvin's presentation differs from the others in that it really is an attempt to think globally about past and present climatic change and its possible effects on creatures and their evolution. As one of the authors whose work on human evolution he cites as recommended reading, I found his discussion of the fossils less engaging than the climate-related information. The book definitely picks up steam when he moves away from trying to discuss human fossils and digs into issues of global warming, shrinking polar ice caps, and oceanic currents. (This may be because much of this section had already been published as "The Great Climate Flip-Flop" in the Atlantic Monthly.) Here he seems to have more fun, getting across an image, for example, of subsurface oceanic water behavior by describing what happens when you pour very cold heavy cream over a spoon into a cup of hot coffee (it sinks as a column) and explaining North Atlantic Ocean current movements by way of a story about incorrectly hooking up a hot-water tank with a toilet that then acted as a radiator. Heading back home to Seattle on the long, great-circle-route flight from Nairobi, over the Gulf Stream and Greenland, Calvin muses on the present global warming brought about by human activities. It could, he says, paradoxically trigger another episode of sudden cooling. The accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could induce an abrupt shutting down of the oceanic "conveyor belt" that sends warmer waters into the North Atlantic, plunging much of the earth into a deep chill. But he doubts that another boom-then-bust cycle will jack up our brain power. We're now smart, he concludes, "in ways that owe little to our present brain power, but rather to the accumulated experience of the people that have lived since the last ice age ended. Education. Writing. Technology. Science." And he suggests that if we're really smart, our accumulated experience may just help us find a way to avoid this looming threat.

Jeffrey H. Schwartz teaches physical anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh and is author of Sudden Origins: Fossils, Genes and the Origin of Species (Wiley, 1999).


"William Calvin uses an adventure across today's Earth to draw laser-sharp insights about our human past, and possibly its future. In A Brain for All Seasons, Calvin shows how gyrating weather patterns may have forged our ancestors' evolutionary path. And since Earth's climate may resume those catastrophic swings at any time, evolution may not be finished with us yet." - David Brin, author of The Transparent Society

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 1 edition (April 15, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226092011
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226092010
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,278,370 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William H. Calvin, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press 2008, see Global-Fever.org) and thirteen earlier books for general readers. He studies brain circuitry, ape-to-human evolution, climate change, and civilization's vulnerability to abrupt shocks.

In Global Fever, he writes: "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. At a time when architects are thinking ahead to more efficient buildings and power planners are extolling the virtues of "renewable energy," the climate modelers have discovered that long-term planning will no longer suffice. Our fossil fuel fiasco has already painted us into a corner such that, if we don't make substantial near-term gains before 2020, the long-term is pre-empted, the efforts all for naught. We are already in dangerous territory and have to act quickly to avoid triggering widespread catastrophes. The only good analogy is arming for a great war, doing what must be done regardless of cost and convenience."

His climate talk in Beijing at the Great Hall of the People is available in streaming video as are other recent lectures at NASA and Rice University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Phillip Martin on May 22, 2002
Format: Hardcover
A Brain for All Seasons brings together several strands of conjecture in palaeoanthropology and palaeoclimatology with recent climatological hypotheses regarding climate change. It plausibly suggests links between sudden shifts between warm, wet to cold, dry climates and bursts of rapid evolution of new species.
Organized as short "lessons" for an "e-course," the text is repetitious, threads are left unconnected, and editing lapses made it necessary for me to reread many sentences. The publisher is not to be thanked for printing the book without correcting errors of spelling and grammar that provoked me to quit after about 240 pages. I recommend reading the library's copy.
The latter part of the book is more fluently and coherently presented in the Atlantic Monthly article that was its genesis.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By "76702765" on January 12, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Yes, as a few other reviewers have noted, this book is written in a rather eccentric style. That, however, was only a problem for me when I went looking for things I'd read and discovered the table of contents made no sense.
On the other hand, the writing is conversational and detailed, thorough and startling. This is one of those books "everybody should read," because the information in it - particularly in the last third - is so incredibly critical to the fate and future of the human race.
Calvin has done one of the best jobs I've seen of explaining how and why the Atlantic currents transport heat and salt - and what happens when they shut down, plunging the entire world into an ice age in as little as 3 to 12 years. (This isn't a just a future threat - it's also an observation of times past. Every ice age has started and ended in fewer than a dozen years!)
Calvin tells us in detail how Europe will be devastated by the next ice age, how our SUV usage today in North America is leading us right to it (and much sooner than most think), and - most amazingly - offers some specific suggestions about things that can be done to stop it (like daming up some fjiords in Greenland and dynamiting others).
Along the way, we also get a completely new view of human evolution, based in the whiplash environment humans survived for the past 200,000 years.
This book is brilliant, and I highly recommend it. Just be sure to mark up the pages as you read them, because that's the only way you'll be able to find things later when you try to explain it to your friends (as you will want to do!).
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on February 10, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Among the many mysteries surrounding human evolution is the "kick start" our cognitive abilities achieved compared with the other primates. This rapid enhancement has been attributed to many causes, new tool use Calvin, whose neuroscience qualifications are impeccable, offers a fresh view. In so doing, he doesn't cease speculating on how we got to be how we are, but takes a further step in suggesting where we might be going. And how to avoid getting there. The human brain is neither an inevitable progression, nor a divine gift, he argues. It's the result of raindrops ceasing to fall on our heads. Climate, he argues, made us what we are. Equally, it may undo us.
Calvin sets the scene at the time when climate changes forced the shrinking of the forest cover in East Africa. Our barely upright ancestors, in coping with the changing environment, learned survival skills on the savannah, then spread out over the globe. During our migrations, various new climatic conditions were being established . The suture of Central America joining North and South America set new wind and current patterns around the globe. The resulting North Atlantic Current [the Gulf Stream] and the temperature and salinity exchanges in that ocean have proven a major factor in climate. Calvin examines what is known about these mechanisms and the impact of variations. The most significant new knowledge refutes the established idea that climate changes gradually. Sudden, wild "flips" of temperature, rainfall and snow cover are now seen as the norm, not as aberrations. Change isn't on the order of centuries, but in years.
Calvin's technique of presenting his ideas is as novel as his thesis.
Read more ›
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Robert Adler on August 7, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is not an easy book to read. Calvin aims high, setting out to present a coherent new model of how repeated, abrupt climate changes may have driven the evolution of the human brain. Since science has only known about Earth's history of climatic instability for a few years and many details remain to be filled in, Calvin has taken on a major challenge. As if that were not enough, in the second half of _A Brain for All Seasons_, he presents the latest ideas about the mechanisms that may have shifted the global climate from extreme to extreme in the past and may do so in the future, and presents an insightful analysis of the risks involved in our present denial-driven do-nothing approach toward climate change.

Unfortunately, a lot of the book reads as though Calvin were thinking out loud. He tends to follow his chain of thought wherever it leads at the time, which I found quite frustrating early on. However, he eventually weaves together the many strands he's mulling over, often in an original and thought-provoking way.

If you come away from the book with a clear understanding of his two main ideas, (1) that repeating cycles of large, abrupt climate shifts have taken place over the course of human evolution and provide a convincing ratcheting mechanism for increased brain size and complexity, and (2) that we urgently need to move past the now headshakingly stupid debate about whether or not human-induced climate change is real to a pragmatic analysis of the risks looming ahead and our options for dealing with them, it's well worth a bit of frustration at his style. In the end, I found the book more than worth the effort.

Robert Adler

Author of _Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation_, (John Wiley& Sons, 2002)
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