Calvin the theologian and Calvin the theoretical neurobiologist

John Calvin, a Theologian from Strasbourg died the day before I was born. He taught an austere form of personal ethics supporting good hospitals, a proper sewage system, protective rails on upper stories to keep children from falling from tall buildings, special care for the poor and infirm, and the introduction of new industries. But he died 418 years before the day before I was born. So he has very little to do with this post. William Calvin, the theoretical neurobiologist may have more. Nonetheless, I do let theological interests from my past sift into the post. 

“As with those fill-in-the-blank test sentences, we’re always guessing about missing parts, trying to make wholes out of fragments.”
William H. Calvin, (2004), A Brief History of the Mind, Chapter 8.

William Calvin has a great website, especially for those undergraduates looking for some cheap and authoritative info on current brain science. His book, A Brief History of the Mind, which I kind-of review here (what I will really end up doing, who knows?), is an effort to form a coherent story out of fragments of information concerning the evolutionary history of our species and the earth we inhabit. He draws upon multiple fields of knowledge and is cautious not to find patterns where none exist. However, such an effort will always be incomplete and will always be a work-in-progress. (Maybe this is why Calvin has published so many books).

The topic of this book, the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the human evolutionary path, will no doubt require more than one person to piece together the constant flux of information. But this book is a first step. In contrast to other books in the neurosciences, Calvin has a wider ethical outlook that frequently acknowledges his levels of reference. He looks to the future and at the past to understand where we are now. He also acknowledges that we must understand the individual as well as society in order to understand the pivotal role our species plays in shaping the ecology of this planet. Despite his optimism, Calvin doubts the ability of our augmented mind to balance our short-term interests with our long-term needs.

Currently, population size and the relative rate of cultural change are daunting problems that we must learn to face – and fast! Mental dysfunctions may present themselves when the brain is unable to keep up with the speed and complexity of everyday life. These problems become even more serious in big cities (where they become lost in the crowd), than in small communities (where they can be under close surveillance). We certainly need people like Calvin to point out the issues, but we also need people who can address them. As Calvin points out, political reaction times are slow to respond to what scientific advances are suggesting about our human needs. Similarly, our genes could be considered incapable of keeping up with our rapidly evolving cultural habits, e.g. the increasing occurrence of diabetes and obesity. –a contentious point that I look forward to getting grilled on!

The cognitive leap that led to our augmented mind – the ability to read another person’s mind – is perhaps the same cognitive leap that led us to anthropomorphise nature, i.e. it may have led us to formulate our ideas of God(s) and possibly Religion(s). Whilst a our modern scientific understanding could be used to disprove the existence of anthropomorphic Gods, it may be more important that we deepen a sense of ethical-spirituality or well-living in order to reintegrate our living habits into a harmonious relationship with our ecology. For some interesting posts and links to the question of God, I recently found this blog: 20gramsoul

But, I err…

 “I’m not a big fan of optimal performance. It usually sacrifices versatility and creativity, and so optimization often leaves you stranded, high and dry, when the time comes to move on to a job promotion or the next phase of life”
William. H. Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind, (2004) Chapter 11.

hmmm… Brings Zinjanthropus to mind…


The environment of our planet is constantly changing and the genotype and phenotype of living organisms must constantly adapt to these changes. Not only do living organisms have to adapt to the physical environment but also to the behaviours and habits of other living organisms. One unique aspect of Homo sapiens sapiens is that we also have to adapt to eachother.

In response to environmental change, nature, with no apparent teleological reason, offers different assortments of genes and phenotypic traits and those best equipped to survive will do so. Calvin describes a series of adaptations that collectively have led to the memotype—the ability of humans to adapt to their environment through culture. Somewhat ironically, culture has now become part of the environment to which human organisms must also adapt.

Calvin’s outlook closely parallels Steven Mithen’s suggestion that there is a greater degree of cognitive fluidity in humans than other species.  Mithen, (in his book The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science, Thames & Hudson, 1996), believes that four kinds of intelligence evolved independently; social intelligence, natural-history intelligence, tool-using intelligence and linguistic intelligence. While Calvin might suggest that the specialization of the human mind is non-specialisation, Mithen suggests that humans have survived in the evolutionary game because of the right assortment of specialist modules. Superficially their arguments seem to contradict each other, but upon further analysis, we see that they may in fact be complementary. The human brain has sufficient plasticity (non-specialisation) to support specialized modules. One process, however, that both Mithen and Calvin neglect is the role of intra- and inter- sexual selection in the expression of these ‘specialist modules’ of the mind. This topic is perhaps better approached by Geoffrey Miller’s, The Mating Mind.

But once again I have managed to lead myself and any unfortunate reader somewhere else in the hope to inspire a ‘yearning for learning’ more about the brain and it’s role in evolution, culture and the ecology of our planet… Which reminds me, I should have mentioned Gregory Bateson too! …Ooh, Ooh! and this recent find too:

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Paul Mason

I am a biomedically trained social anthropologist interested in biological and cultural diversity.

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