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Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change

by William H. Calvin University of Chicago Press
Pub Date:
Hbk 352 pages
AU$64.00 NZ$66.96
Product Status: Not Our Publication - we no longer distribute
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One of the most shocking realizations of all time has slowly been dawning on us: the earth's climate does great flip-flops every few thousand years, and with breathtaking speed. In just a few years, the climate suddenly cools worldwide. With only half the rainfall, severe dust storms whirl across vast areas. Lightning strikes ignite giant forest fires. For most mammals, including our ancestors, populations crash.Our ancestors lived through hundreds of such abrupt episodes since the more gradual Ice Ages began two and a half million years ago--but abrupt cooling produced a population bottleneck each time, one that eliminated most of their relatives. We are the improbable descendants of those who survived--and later thrived.
William H. Calvin's marvelous A Brain for All Seasons argues that such cycles of cool, crash, and burn powered the pump for the enormous increase in brain size and complexity in human beings. Driven by the imperative to adapt within a generation to ''whiplash'' climate changes where only grass did well for a while, our ancestors learned to cooperate and innovate in hunting large grazing animals.Calvin's book is structured as a travelogue that takes us around the globe and back in time. Beginning at Darwin's home in England, Calvin sits under an oak tree and muses on what controls the speed of evolutionary ''progress.'' The Kalahari desert and the Sterkfontein caves in South Africa serve as the backdrop for a discussion of our ancestors' changing diets. A drought-shrunken lake in Kenya shows how grassy mudflats become great magnets for grazing animals. And in Copenhagen, we learn what ice cores have told us about abrupt jumps in past climates.Perhaps the most dramatic discovery of all, though, awaits us as we fly with Calvin over the Gulf Stream and Greenland: global warming caused by human-made pollution could paradoxically trigger another sudden episode of global cooling. Because of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the oceanic ''conveyor belt'' that sends warmer waters into the North Atlantic could abruptly shut down. If that happens again, much of the Earth could be plunged into a deep chill within a few years. Europe would become as cold and dry as Siberia. Agriculture could not adapt quickly enough to avoid worldwide famines and wars over the dwindling food supplies--a crash from which it would take us many centuries to recover.With this warning, Calvin connects us directly to evolution and the surprises it holds. Highly illustrated, conversational, and learned, A Brain for All Seasons is a fascinating view of where we came from, and where we're going.

Preamble51°N 0°E Darwins home—Catastrophic gradualism51°N 0°W Evolution House, Kew Gardens—The Darwinian Quality Bootstrap51°N 1°E Down among the fossils—All of those chimp-human differences 49°N 2°E Musée de lHomme in Paris—The Ghost of Habitats Past50°N 8°E Bockenheim—Tracing roots back to the Big Bang52°N 5°E Layover Limbo—IQ and evolutions package deals22°N 14°E Contemplating the Sahara—Why climate can suddenly flip0°N 22°E Latitude Zero—Population fluctuations and refugia19°S 23°E Okavango Delta—The island advantage25°S 16°E Sossusvlei Dunes—Hominid opportunities in deserts?26°S 28°E Sterkfontein Caves—The big change in hominid diet34°S 18°E Cape of Good Hope—The turning point that wasn't1°S 37°E Nairobi—Creating new species from old ones2°S 36°E Olorgesailie—The easiest tool of all0°S 36°E Kariandusi—A layer cake of handaxes0°S 36°E Lake Nakuru—Where droughts cause a boom time1°N 36°E Lake Baringo—The earliest hominids1°S 36°E Lake Naivasha—Droughts even in good times3°S 35°E Olduvai Gorge—Degrees of separation1°S 35°E Maasai Mara—The Crash-Boom-Boom cycle20°N 15°E Libya by moonlight—The last big step toward humans52°N 5°E Layover Limbo (again)—The Little Ice Age and its witch hunts56°N 13°E Copenhagens ice cores—Slow ice ages and abrupt whiplashes56°N 13°E The plane where its always noon—How ice age climate got the shakes60°N 11°E High above Oslo—The ocean has a conveyor belt63°N 6°E Out over the sinking Gulf Stream—Dans coffee cream trick71°N 8°W Jan Mayen Island—Flushing the Gulf Stream72°N 12°W The Greenland Sea—Losing the first Panama Canal74°N 19°W Greenland fjords—What stops the conveyor75°N 40°W Atop Greenland—Why melting can cause cooling78°N 69°W Thule—Rube Goldberg cause-and-effect73°N 95°W Somerset Island—North Poles arent what they used to be68°N 105°W Crossing the North American coast—How we might stabilize climate62°N 114°W Yellowknife, Northwest Territories—Feedbacks in the greenhouse49°N 123°W Bumpy border crossing—Managing high-risk situationsAfterthoughtsAcknowledgmentsGlossaryRecommended ReadingChapter NotesSubject Index

''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
William H. Calvin is an affiliate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He is the author or coauthor of ten books, including Lingua ex Machina, The Cerebral Code, How Brains Think, Conversations with Neil's Brain, and The River That Flows Uphill. The last third of A Brain for All Seasons is based on his cover story "The Great Climate Flip-Flop" in The Atlantic Monthly.