William H. Calvin

From Academic Kids

Missing image
William H. Calvin in 2004

William H. Calvin, Ph.D., (born 30 April 1939) is a Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is a well-known popularizer of neuroscience and evolutionary biology, including the hybrid of these two fields, neural Darwinism. He relates abrupt climate change to human evolution and speculates about the future.

In his book How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now, Calvin writes as an advocate of the idea that brain-based Darwinian processes are what provides brains with what we call "consciousness" and "intelligence". Calvin starts with the harmless division of brain processes into two types, those that depend on "cerebral ruts" (hardware) and those that dance more freely through the brain and so are able to function like "software".....Calvin usually calls these "firing patterns".

Calvin's more audacious step, in his research monograph The Cerebral Code, comes when he suggests that the pattern of action potentials in any particular neocortical minicolumn can be replicated and spread through the cortex like a piece of software code and be "played" on the millions of other minicolumns in the same way you can play a million copies of a CD on a million CD players......the key difference being that while all CD players are designed to do basically the same task, the various cortical minicolumns can all have their own unique "ruts" and the copies of the firing patterns are not exact duplicates.

This allows for a "cerebral symphony" rather than just a million-fold amplification of the same tune and a "survival of the fittest" process whereby those firing patterns that resonate best with the existing pool of "ruts" will dominate our consciousness and generate intelligent behavior. ("Our long train of connected thoughts is why our consciousness is so different from what came before.")

In writing about what mind will become, in A Brief History of the Mind, he notes, "We will likely shift gears again, juggling more concepts and making decisions even faster, imagining courses of action in greater depth. Ethics are possible only because of a human level of ability to speculate, judge quality, and modify our possible actions accordingly."


  • Inside the Brain (with George Ojemann)
  • The Throwing Madonna
  • The River That Runs Uphill: From the Big Bang to the Big Brain
  • The Cerebral Symphony
  • The Ascent of Mind
  • How the Shaman Stole the Moon
  • Conversations with Neil's Brain: The Neural Nature of Thought and Language (with George Ojemann)
  • How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now
  • The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind
  • Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain (with Derek Bickerton)
  • A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
  • A Brief History of the Mind: From Apes to Intellect and Beyond

External links


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