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Evolutionary Geologist Honored for Research

By Andy Fell on March 5, 2004 in

Geerat Vermeij, a professor of geology whose work on sea shells has led to insights into evolution, ecology, biology and economics, has been named the 2004 Faculty Research Lecturer by his colleagues at the University of California, Davis.

Vermeij, who is blind, uses his sense of touch to study the shape and surface features of shells.

"I just love the things, they are works of art," he said.

The Faculty Research Lecture is the highest honor bestowed by UC Davis faculty on their peers and recognizes exceptional contributions to research. The 62nd annual award was announced at the annual spring meeting of the UC Davis Academic Senate last month. The recipient usually presents a campus lecture during the spring quarter.

Tilahun Yilma, professor of veterinary virology and chair of the Academic Senate's Selection Committee for the award, cited Vermeij's contributions to a wide range of fields.

"He sees evolutionary trends others are not able to, and adds something others cannot," Yilma said.

"This honor reflects the esteem in which Professor Vermeij is held by his colleagues and the breadth and influence of his research. His extraordinary research deserves the highest respect," said Winston Ko, dean of the division of mathematical and physical sciences.

Although he lost his sight at an early age, Vermeij was fascinated by nature as a child growing up in Holland and then New Jersey. His passion for sea shells took off when a school teacher brought a collection of shells from Florida to class.

"They were so much nicer than the ones from the North Sea. I was totally infatuated," he said.

Hard, durable, readily fossilized and endlessly varied, shells form a lasting trace of a diverse and widespread group of animals and a window into the living world over hundreds of millions of years.

Vermeij has used shells to study relationships between predators and prey as they evolve ways to attack and defend against each other. He's studied how and why species become extinct, both in the ancient geological past and in more recent times, and what happens when a species invades a new area.

That body of work has led him to larger questions, such as: What causes the history of life? What are the consequences of life? And what comparisons can be made between the history of life and the history of humanity?

In a forthcoming book, "Nature and Economic History," Vermeij brings an evolutionary and ecological perspective to bear on human history, arguing that similar principles, notably competition for resources and the disproportionate success of the stronger competitor, drive both. Those factors mean that both human history and the history of life are moving in the same general direction: larger, more powerful actors and more energy use. But large, dominant groups are also more vulnerable to sudden disruptions.

Vemeij rejects political categories for his ideas.

"I take a negative view of any system based on dogma," he said. "If you don't question your assumptions, you fall into traps." The best approach is to treat problems and solutions as hypotheses and be ready to modify or reject them, he said.

Vermeij attributes success in science to thoughtful observation, curiosity and hard work.

"There's nothing more important than being puzzled by the world," he said.

Vermeij sees his research as closely linked to teaching.

"To me, being a good teacher means being thoroughly involved in scholarly work. It's essential to communicating how knowledge is acquired," he said.

Vermeij received his bachelor's degree from Princeton University and a masters' and Ph.D. from Yale. He worked at the University of Maryland from 1971 to 1988 before moving to UC Davis. A past recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, he has authored over 100 scholarly publications and three books, including his autobiography, "Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life," published in 1996.

Media contact(s)

Andy Fell, Research news (emphasis: biological and physical sciences, and engineering), 530-752-4533,

Geerat Vermeij, Geology, 530-752-2234,