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Seashells inspired career of lauded evolutionary geologist

By Andy Fell on March 5, 2004 in University

Geerat Vermeij says he was always interested in nature as a child growing up in Holland and New Jersey. When a teacher bought a collection of tropical seashells from Florida to school, it began a life-long passion for shells and the animals that make them, both living and long extinct.

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

Blind since the age of 3, Vermeij uses his sense of touch to study the shape and surface features of shells. That work has lead him to insights into evolution, ecology, biology and, most recently, economics. Last month, he was named as the 2004 Faculty Research Lecturer by his colleagues in the Academic Senate. It is the highest honor bestowed by UC Davis faculty members on their peers and recognizes exceptional contributions to research. The recipient usually presents a campus lecture on his research during the spring quarter.

Tilahun Yilma, professor of veterinary virology and chair of the Academic Senate's Selection Committee for the award, announced the honor at the annual spring meeting of the Senate. He 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.

Winston Ko, dean of the division of mathematical and physical sciences, agreed, noting, "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."

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 has 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.

"Studying shells is a very good choice for someone who can't see. You can ask a great many questions of mollusks," he said.

That body of work has lead 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, he said. But large, dominant groups are also more vulnerable to sudden disruptions.

There is also a trend for larger, dominant groups rich in material resources to create environments favorable to the evolution of novelty and new inventions, he said. As a social species, humans can act together to counter the trend to inequality, Vermeij said.

Vemeij said he rejects political categories for his ideas. "The last thing I want is unshakeable 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.

Although Vermeij thinks his blindness may have lead him to observe some details differently or approach some things in a alternative way, he attributes success in science to thoughtful observation, curiosity and hard work. "There's nothing more important than being puzzled by the world," he said. "Observation while your brain is in gear is critical."

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 recieved his bachelor's degree from Princeton University and a masters' and doctorate 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 more than 100 scholarly publications and three books, including his autobiography, Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life, published in 1996.

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