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How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then And Now (Science Masters Series) [Paperback]

William H Calvin
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 6, 1997 046507278X 978-0465072781
If you’re good at finding the one right answer to life’s multiple-choice questions, you’re ”smart.” But ”intelligence” is what you need when contemplating the leftovers in the refrigerator, trying to figure out what might go with them; or if you’re trying to speak a sentence that you’ve never spoken before. As Jean Piaget said, intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do, when all the standard answers are inadequate. This book tries to fathom how our inner life evolves from one topic to another, as we create and reject alternatives. Ever since Darwin, we’ve known that elegant things can emerge (indeed, self-organize) from ”simpler” beginnings. And, says theoretical neurophysiologist William H. Calvin, the bootstrapping of new ideas works much like the immune response or the evolution of a new animal species—except that the brain can turn the Darwinian crank a lot faster, on the time scale of thought and action. Drawing on anthropology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, and the neurosciences, Calvin also considers how a more intelligent brain developed using slow biological improvements over the last few million years. Long ago, evolving jack-of-all trades versatility was encouraged by abrupt climate changes. Now, evolving intelligence uses a nonbiological track: augmenting human intelligence and building intelligent machines.

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Editorial Reviews Review

William Calvin, a neurophysiologist and author of The River That Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain, attempts to reclaim the study of human consciousness from physicists like Roger Penrose. Physicists, Calvin suggests, reduce the mind to subatomic particles and mathematical equations, whereas those in his specialty see the seat of consciousness and intelligence in higher levels of brain physiology--the neurons, synapses, and cortex. Calvin is a Darwinist who regards the unique level of human consciousness as the product of evolutionary forces that began with the ice ages two million years ago. The human response to this natural threat, he argues, was to develop mental faculties that allowed high-level communication and, thus, cooperation, leading to complex language capabilities and the distinguishing human characteristic of abstract thought. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Another solid contribution to the Science Masters series encapsulates for nonspecialists current knowledge about the human brain. Author of a half dozen books on the subject, Calvin distills his expertise with trusty Darwinian principles as his guide. Before making his argument that competitive processes in the cerebral cortex account for the content of people's thoughts, he builds a foundation by describing what intelligence is, how it might have evolved amid the ice ages of the past few million years, and the physiology of the brain's neurons and chemicals. Calvin narrows the scope of his subject by confining intelligence to the finding of novel solutions to problems, a stern test that excludes all animals but humans and, rudimentarily, primates. In the how of intelligence Calvin hits his stride, bringing readers along easily as he explains the anatomy of nerve cells, their bundling in groups, and firing of electric pulses. Still partially a mystery, intelligence's nature (and manifestation in language) gets a consummately clear summary in Calvin's hands. Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Series: Science Masters Series
  • Paperback: 184 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (September 6, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 046507278X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465072781
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.1 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #212,712 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, now affiliated with the Program on Climate Change of the College of the Environment. He is the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change (University of Chicago Press 2008, see 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

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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What to do next? May 2, 2003
Calvin offers an evolutionary description of the development of human intelligence. He's very careful to avoid using "consciousness" since Dennett, Humphreys, Pinker and others have firmly employed that term. Calvin cites Piaget's "intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do next" as a foundation thesis. From this he compares human mental talents with those of other animals, mostly primates, to demonstrate evolutionary roots for our intelligence. Behaviour issues common to everyday life become visible evidence for what is going on in our brains. Calvin manages to take his analysis into the physical processes that occur as we decide on our actions. It's a well written and "down to earth" explanation of many questions we have on what intelligence is and how we use it.
Piaget's comment reflects the growing knowledge of brain processes. Much of the brain's time is spent collecting, storing, retrieving and applying information. This means that both "unconscious" events and our expressions and actions only come about after numerous and complicated signal processing has already occurred. Calvin describes in both text and graphics how neurons are constructed, convey data, and interact within the brain. Clearly, nothing is instantaneous and many elements are competing for dominance during every moment awake. Clear, too, is the notion that while other primates have many talents to deal with their surroundings, none possess the powers evolution gave humans.
What drives these powerful mental abilities? He rebuffs the idea of the "quantum brain". It's too deep in the brain's structure - "in the subbasement of physics". That's too far removed from areas of vision, speech, and memory.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing hodgepodge January 21, 1999
By A Customer
I enjoyed _The River That Flows Uphill_, but have found this book terribly disappointing. Calvin manages to be both condescending and opaque. He disses, without naming names or stating arguments, the premise of Penrose's _The Emperor's New Mind_, dismissing him as someone who commits "beginner errors." Of course, we don't find out what those errors are, either in the original or in Calvin's response.
He talks about how even pros like him can get confused about proximate and ultimate causes, and then proceeds to muddy the waters further. His analogies range from lame to flat wrong ("some football teams win without completing a single pass"), and do more to confuse than illuminate.
He treats controversial, or at least, open questions as settled, as when he assumes punctuated equilibrium (without attribution) holds. And he fails to distinguish his speculations from issues that are widely held.
A short, disappointing book.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars With Style, Grace, and Wit January 11, 2000
In Chapter 1 of How Brains Think, William H. Calvin recalls Piaget "who used to say that intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do." Throughout the balance of this immensely readable as well as informative book, Calvin attempts to explain what is so difficult to understand: the interaction between the brain and the mind, and, the interaction of the mind with the physical world in which it exists. "The big issue for understanding intelligence isn't who has more but what intelligence is, when it's needed, and how it operates. Some of what intelligence encompasses are cleverness, foresight,, speed, creativity, and how many things you can juggle at once."
Although Calvin is an eminent theoretical neurophysiologist, How Brains Think is not a textbook in which he explains in mind-numbing detail the brain, the mind, and their interaction. Calvin has written How Brains Think for the reasonably intelligent non-scientist. As Calvin concludes How Brains Think, he observes:
It behooves us to be a considerate creator [of superintelligent machines], wise to the world and its fragile nature, sensitive to the need for stable footings that will prevent backsliding -- and keep the house of cards we call civilization from collapsing.
Near the end of his book, Calvin quotes from Lewis Thomas' masterpiece The Medusa and the Snail: "We need science, more and better science, not for its technology, not for its leisure, not even for health and longevity, but for the hope of wisdom which our kind of culture must acquire for its survival." Albert Borgmann, Eric Drexler, Thomas Friedman, and Joel Mokyr (among others) rise to their feet to join William Calvin in applauding Thomas' comments.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars ALL THE BRAIN'S A STAGE June 12, 2000
Coming attractions on Calvin's marquee are AI blobs of super intelligence and since they need not move nor eat I guess one could pull one along like a little red wagon. Author sets some kind of mark for hubris and keeps plugging his next book, CEREBRAL CODES. Although he admits that improved brain imagery would be required to test his ideas, he sounds certain these little details don't matter much. What are his ideas? He imports them wholly from darwinism: there must be competition in the cortex to account for changes and new ideas; the winner must have a copying mechanism in the brain (similar to RNA and DNA) to sort out the chaos. He brings on stage a Greek chorus of neurons to throw out the losers.
My biggest problem with the book was Calvin's idiosyncratic choice of terms. He seems to demand some potion of free will in the neuron's selection of input signals; he sees no value in random selection nor mutation. Intelligence he sees as "good guessing." Cerebral codes he sees as the winners of the intense competition over what will be copied in short term memory. He thinks Penrose's quantum field or"microtubles of neuron's cytoskeleton" is just another word for spirit -- the ghost in the machine, but his own stealth candidate is "dynamic patchwork quilt" of patterns. I enjoyed his metaphors but they need not conflict with Penrose's. What he has done with his cerebral codes is encrypt his own common reductionism of portraying man's mind as just a bag of neurons -- like his buddy Francis Crick (THE ASTONISHING HYPOTHESIS). There is nothing new in this book except new terminology of which we are already stuffed.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars USE IT OR LOSE IT.
This book is a short survey of brain and mind. It isnt exhaustive, nor is it penetrating; Calvin touches all the important points and moves on. Read more
Published on July 14, 2008 by James B. Johnson
4.0 out of 5 stars A Review of How Brains Think
Calvin contends that brains (OR COMPUTERS!)

are able to THINK by virtue of being "Darwin

machines," machines that emulate biological

evolution but... Read more
Published on December 1, 2006 by Robert Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars Calvin's Neocortical Darwin Machine
This book is an attempt to "pull together all of the essentials.....of a darwinian process" and "describe a specific neural mechanism that could implement such a... Read more
Published on January 4, 2002 by John W. Schmidt
4.0 out of 5 stars suitable for beginners
This book provides a clear introduction to the secular materialistic viewpoint on the mind. Easy enough for layman to comprehend. Read more
Published on January 31, 2001 by King David
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent contribution to the Science Masters series
I found this book to be a great introduction to the study of mind and brain. It was the first time I read anything by Calvin so I look forward to reading his other writings. Read more
Published on October 7, 1999
2.0 out of 5 stars Didn't fire my synapses
Calvin's "How Brains Think" makes a reader realize how thankful he or she should be for Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan -- brilliant scientists who can express brilliant... Read more
Published on January 15, 1997
3.0 out of 5 stars Needs editing, seems dashed-off.
Strikes me more like a first draft. Disorganized; supposedly
aimed at an introductory audience (according to the jacket)
but if I hadn't just finished Dennet's Darwin's... Read more
Published on January 12, 1997
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