inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #26 of 84: Jeff Dooley (dooley) Sun 30 Jun 02 17:19
    

You seem to take a cynical view of the prospects for robust political
support for the kind of research that would draw us closer to knowing
when we might be approaching a danger zone, wihtin which an event
like a bad el Nino might push us over the edge into cool dry. Or
for how to manipulate climate to stay safely out of shooting range.
Since you probably wrote (for instance) "know-nothing president and
do-nothing congress" 1-2 years ago, what is your assessment today of
the political support for helpful research, and is there any increasing
interest among scientists in Europe, which would be geatly stressed after a
cool-dry flip?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #27 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Sun 30 Jun 02 20:57
    
Not cynical, I hope (I spend too much time trying to point out all the
useful things that could be done).  

People naturally think in the short term, not much beyond the lives of
their children and grandchildren.  And some of them (say, Mr. Reagan's
interior secretary, James Watt) think the world's time is so short
that conservation doesn't matter.

It's the responsibility of political leaders to take a longer view. 
And that of authors and the media to help persuade the public that
there is more to life than cheap gas and low taxes.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #28 of 84: Andrew Alden (alden) Sun 30 Jun 02 21:26
    
When I read that passage (it's on p. 280 of the book, at the end of "How we
might stabilize climate"), I also wondered when you wrote it. This passage
is a scenario like our current "know-something-do-nothing" state of affairs,
what you call "Know Nothing, Do Nothing." In this scenario, short-sighted
leaders "have enough influence to create starvation budgets for the relevant
science agencies," call for blue-ribbon papers over and over, etc. "In the
USA, all it takes is either a know-nothing President or a do-nothing
Congress."

The Bush administration is close to know-nothing when it comes to climate
change--though people see Bush in action and think things are worse than
they are. And Congress has been eager to fund science agencies well beyond
what the President proposes. But my heart was in my mouth this year when the
president asked to maim the US Geological Survey and grossly increase the
health agencies' budgets instead. Those of us who understand the long-term
needs of civilization must continue to teach and to make our voices heard.

In your book you speak often of climate flip-flops, how conditions across
very large regions switch from warm-wet to cold-dry within a decade. Whole
nations would undergo persistent, total crop failures. You say that these
sudden changes have happened hundreds of times during the last 3 million
years or so. Has it really been hundreds? And if so, why has it been so long
since the last one?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #29 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Mon 1 Jul 02 16:59
    
The really big flips, sudden each way, are the Dansgaard-Oeschger
events, of which 20 are numbered between 77k and 12k years ago.  There
are many smaller, shorter events in that period which would be just as
disrupting to an agricultural house-of-cards civilizatgion.  Then there
are the Heinrich events (ice rafting across the Atlantic that more
thoroughly shuts down the Atlantic heat conveyor) associated with the
depths of the cool-dry cycle.  The Heinrich events go back to 1.1
million years ago.  In saying "hundreds," I am assuming that the D-O's
are likely occurring in that 1.1 myr period with the H` events.
     Why not since the Younger Dryas (the most recent D-O at
12,800-11,500 years ago)?  The 8,200 year event (about 3degC cooling,
recovering exponentially within 200 years) was definitely a meltwater
event in the Labrador Sea.  So we've had 8,000 years without these
suddent events that were otherwise occurring every few thousand years.
     Most people think that the lack of them is because the
heavily-glaciated times have more feedbacks and more meltwater events. 
But I worry that we're vulnerable even without a Canadian and
Scandanavian ice heap.  The last warm period ended suddenly.  And there
is good evidence of a cooling event about 125,000 years ago in the
midst of the prior warm period, from which it recovered; the ice cores
are not in agreement about that event, so we don't know how fast it
was, just from the coral records of sea-level down and back up.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #30 of 84: Jeff Dooley (dooley) Mon 1 Jul 02 17:08
    

You advise that we work extra hard to avoid slipping into a warming-induced
cool-dry period because once established cool-dry is difficult to reverse.
I think i remember you saying late in the book that volcano emitted CO2
is thought to account for sudden flips back to a warmer regime. Is this the
major trigger for squirming out of cool-dry, or have there been other
possibilities?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #31 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Mon 1 Jul 02 20:40
    
No, CO2 is a mechanism for getting out of the Snowball Earth episodes,
last seen in precambrian times.
   Cool-dry is difficult to reverse, at least regarding the
thermohaline shutdown which has a hysteresis loop.  But no one really
understands the abrupt rewarming; what is better understood is the
abrupt cooling mechanism.  My guess is that both are atmospheric wind
rearrangements triggered by sea-surface temperature distributions,
which in turn affects the average humidity.  Failure and reinstatement
of the thermohaline aspect may not be the suddenness we see, just part
of the setup.
    Sorry for all the technical language.  I can avoid it more easily
about the anthropology!
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #32 of 84: Andrew Alden (alden) Tue 2 Jul 02 21:09
    
On the subject of anthropology, then, your book presents some things I
hadn't known before. For a long time I've tended to ignore news about early
hominids because it seemed like every new skull was declared a new species,
or demolished an existing theory. But the picture you paint is one of
burgeoning hominid species over the last 3 million years. The slender tree
of evolution that led to our single twig, Homo sapiens, was truly more like
a bush. Is the picture really becoming clear? Did humanlike species arise
easily, rather than one single human species evolving without speciation?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #33 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Wed 3 Jul 02 08:22
    
I decided to avoid the arguments about each different species named
for the hominids.  Nothing dates a book faster than that!
   But I think that there were probably a dozen species on the line
from the chimp common ancestor to us.  (So does Ian Tattersall in
Becoming Human.)  Speciation in the record is a subtle thing to
establish; reproductive isolation cannot be seen, and that's what
counts as a ratchet to the Darwinian crank.  It's a high degree of
reproductive failure when two groups try to interbreed that prevents
backsliding when immigrants arrive in an isolated valley or island
where natural selection has substantially biased the population's
characteristics.  Speciation prevents backsliding.  And since hominid
evolution is relatively fast (especially the brain size increases in
the last million years), I'd assume that there have been a number of
speciations (reproductive isolations, perhaps without the obvious
anatomical changes that a paleontologist would use to peg a new
species).
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #34 of 84: Andrew Alden (alden) Wed 3 Jul 02 11:25
    
"...a high degree of failure when two groups try to interbreed"

That struck me as a great simplification, and a useful one, when we think
about the origin of a new species. Part of the trouble with Darwin's picture
of speciation was that nobody had a deep enough understanding of genetics in
his time. He could only point to examples like the horse and the ass, which
yield sterile offspring between species. But clearly horses and asses are
different "kinds," so you could say his example didn't really prove
anything. Their genomes are incompatible, just like ours and bonobos.

But something you point out is that there are many subtle ways that
different groups within the same species ACT like separate species. This was
new to me--but then I would have the paleontologist's view: if the bones
don't show it, we can't claim it. You have the biologist's view: species are
as species do.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #35 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Thu 4 Jul 02 14:50
    
There are two disjoint concepts of a species:  what looks "different
enough" and when a population no longer interbreeds effectively with
its parent species (reproductive isolation).  

On the first definition, paleontoologists digging up a pet cemetery
would decide there were dozens of dog species.  

On the second definition, they're all one species because they all
interbreed, yielding mongrels (what the original "breed" likely looked
like).

Similarly, there are some species of cormorants that look alike but
are really separate species (they specialize in different niches).

The paleontologists are doing the best they can.  Soon, extracting DNA
will allow a better method of judging fossils.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #36 of 84: Andrew Alden (alden) Thu 4 Jul 02 15:24
    
It intrigued me that you cited medical evidence that different groups of
people have trouble "cross-breeding" and that some unexpected things can
interfere with normal reproduction, even things like drinking water. And
here I thought there was something called "hybrid vigor." Is that a fallacy?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #37 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Thu 4 Jul 02 21:59
    
No, I said that one could imagine groups of hominids that began to
have a lot of reproductive failures when interbreedeing.  I had
spontaneous abortions in mind (things like smoking can triple the
spontaneous abortion rate, so perhaps aspects of diet could do it too).
 But rearing children successfully is part of it, and if between-group
pairings are less like to successfully support a child up to
reproductive age, that would contribute to species-like separation too.
 Then too, kids tend to beat up a child that looks funny.  Culture
might be as important as biology in effectively causing reproductive
isolation.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #38 of 84: flying jenny (jenslobodin) Fri 5 Jul 02 03:32
    
this is great, fascinating. just wanted to let you know you're talking
to more of us than you might think. i'm reading the book; no questions
yet, though i'm sure to have some soon. thanks, both of you! 
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #39 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Fri 5 Jul 02 08:46
    
FYI, the entire text is at www.williamcalvin.com.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #40 of 84: Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 5 Jul 02 13:21
    

And if anyone who is not a WELL member wants to participate in this 
discussion, send your comments and questions to inkwell-hosts@well.com and 
we will see that your words get posted.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #41 of 84: Andrew Alden (alden) Fri 5 Jul 02 16:35
    
Culture as a force in speciation... That reminds me of another point you
make, which is about adaptation. There's a line of argument among
creationists that living things can't just grow new parts, like the eye--
they are so unlikely to happen by normal variation or by mutation (which
they love to call "random chance") that they must have been created
specifically. You point out that behaviors favor certain adaptations and not
others. If the ancestors of moles weren't already digging in the soil for
their food, then their amazing forepaws wouldn't have been favored. The
critters didn't suddenly find themselves born with them and then decide to
go digging.

So what were we doing with our prehistoric lives that favored great big
brains?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #42 of 84: Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Fri 5 Jul 02 21:12
    
(BTW, the front page for the book doesn't render correctly under
Mozilla 1.0.)
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #43 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Sat 6 Jul 02 11:27
    
Apropos the creationist's "common sense" argument re complicated
assemblies, I defer to Richard Dawkins, <i>River Out of Eden
</i>(Science Masters, BasicBooks, 1995).
        "Never say, and never take seriously anybody who says, `I
cannot believe that so-and-so could have evolved by gradual selection.'
I have dubbed this kind of fallacy `the Argument from Personal
Incredulity.' Time and again, it has proved the prelude to an
intellectual banana-skin experience." 

The 8-hr <i>Evolution</i> series had an excellent segment on the
evolution of the camera-like aspects of the eye, showing simple
intermediate steps thatw ere themselves useful.

Brain growth is gradual, and their argument really doesn't apply to
it.  But the nature of the selective pressures isn't really settled
yet; I explain in the book why I think that "intelligence" as an
explanation is unsatisfactory and unsatisfying.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #44 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Sat 6 Jul 02 11:34
    
The other aspect of common sense misleading people is that we tend to
expect straight-line evolution, say bigger brains are more intelligent,
smarter is better, and so bigger is better.  Over and over.
     But in evolution, you often have a mix of causes.  That's why I
like my curb-cut metaphor so much.  Initially wheelchair sue paid for
the curb cuts.  But once in place, there were many secondary "free"
uses.  At airports, the wheeled suitcases have, in effect, paid for
widening the curb ciuts to be as wide as the crosswalk.  Still, most of
the uses (bicycles, skate boards, grocery carts) are free.
     I think that when we finally understand big brain evolution, we
will appreciate that there were initial causes, secondary improvements
for other reasons, and so forth.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #45 of 84: Fuzzy Logic (phred) Sun 7 Jul 02 18:26
    
The curb cut thing comes to mind every time I nearly get run over on
Portland's downtown sidewalks by a zooming bicycle rider.  We have a
city ordinance that restricts bicycles to the street downtown except
for police and quasi-police (our downtown "improvement association"
gendarmes).  So every innovation carries within it unexpected social
complification :)

But more seriously... I'm glad to see the return to more straightforward
Darwinian thought recently.  The notion that alden mentioned of the
term "natural selection" too readily bringing to mind the notion of a
"selector" -- which leads to the current oddball fad of "intelligent
design" is one dead end.  Another is a kind of simplistic reductionism
embodied, for me anyway, by the so-called Eve Hypothesis.  I'm not
quite sure why this rather ordinary conclusion from studies of human
molecular evolution hit such a huge public nerve starting in the
late 1980s.  

It's been helpful recently to read Ernst Mayr's "What Evolution Is,"
a very clear general-readership summary of current Darwinian science.
(Just shows you what 97 years of experience can bring out ...!)

What I wonder if you'd comment on, though, is the prospects for our
culture, science and technology to change direction to be more in
alignment with the natural cycles our economy and lives are embedded
in, with global climate of course being critical.  I was struck by
your reference to the fact that we don't plan well, at least in
modern society, much past the time horizon of our children or 
grandchildren's lives, and yet atmospheric CO2 sets in motion a
hysteresis effect of at least that long.  Many "indigenous" societies
have belief systems predicated on a much longer view ("the seventh
generation of the seventh generation, etc.) and while it's likely
that belief and practice weren't exactly aligned there either, 
perhaps we've lost something in the embrace of technology over all.

The good thinkers in ecological economics refer to this as the
"generational equity" issue, and it confounds some of the fundamental
assumptions in our societal planning such as the adoption of an
economic discount rate that is fixed and essentially indefinite.
On that basis, anything happening more than 20 or 30 years from now
is seen, on a planning basis using the conventional tools, as 
basically having no present value.

So I guess my question is, we have all this science on global climate
change now, and we have a pretty full plate on the near-term research
agenda.  But for those of us who are not climate scientists -- where
to from here, and how can the science be tied more tightly to 
governance without it becoming the absurd dualistic political football
game that climate has been over the last decade?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #46 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Mon 8 Jul 02 08:34
    
Hi, phred!  The main long-term public policy embraced by segments of
the public is "balance."  Protecting endangered species, keeping CO2
from rising, keeping habitat for natural predators like wolves, etc.
    All valuable in their own right, but hanging them on "balance"
gets into trouble with the notion that there is no steady-state in real
life, that things are always in the process of changing.  Dynamics, in
short, not statics.  Near-static is our main approach to it, as in the
ramp-up-the-thermostat metaphor for global warming (rather than the
metaphor of the light switch that simply flips into a new state at some
point).
     So we need some improved metaphors all around.  That's one of the
things that I try to do in the book, for both biological evolution and
for climate change.gh
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #47 of 84: Andrew Alden (alden) Mon 8 Jul 02 12:31
    
I like that aspect of "A Brain for All Seasons" a lot, the new and improved
metaphors. It helps that you have a scientist's proper understanding of what
lies behind the metaphors.

You have an unusually broad range for a scientist too, in my experience. An
appreciation for scenarios and contingencies is a key ingredient in
historical sciences and life science, which is where the subject of brain
evolution lives. Fluency in physical thinking and analysis is a mainstay of
geophysical subjects like paleoclimatology and oceanography, which is where
the greenhouse problem lives. You might call the two approaches historical
and numerical. I would say that we badly need more people who can combine
the two, whether it's interdisciplinary scientists like yourself or writers
who can make them both sexy--like yourself.

Are our universities up to this task?
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #48 of 84: Indigo Mallard (blueduck) Mon 8 Jul 02 13:26
    
Reading over the part about altruism evolution versus freeloaders - I was
reminded of Turnbull's study of the Kikuyu who are not altruistic, but their
system works for survival of the tribe.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #49 of 84: William Calvin (william-calvin) Mon 8 Jul 02 22:16
    
andrew asks if universities are up to the task of formenting
multidisciplinary overviews.  Generally not.

I manage only because I mostly stay off the payroll, thanks to
royalties.  The basic problem is grants, the lifeblood of lab, field,
and simulation research.  Grants are awarded by review groups that have
a focus; if the grant only "speaks" to several members of the
committee, other grants more focussed on the committee's true expertise
will get more votes.  People vote for what they can understand and
appreciate.  There are other causes of specialization, such as only
being able to keep up with a narrow segment of a field in any depth. 
SO many multidisciplinary things fall between the cracks.  And if they
don't fit the lab- or field-research paradigm, they have even rougher
going.

But smaller foundations are more open to supporting overview-type
stuff such as mine.  Unfortunately, what one needs is a job with
overview as a mandate, not just a $20k foundation grant here and there.
  
inkwell.vue.153 : William Calvin - A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change
permalink #50 of 84: Indigo Mallard (blueduck) Tue 9 Jul 02 08:21
    
Finished the book. I would say that my primary contentions are with the
techno fixes.

Based on what I know about this, I don't think those are going to work.

Wishful thinking to believe that a little dynamite, for example, is going to
be able to stop fresh water flooding as described.

The kicker here, though, is the extent of the greenhouse effect. We haven't
had this much greenhouse chemistry going on in the last few million years.
  

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