Vermeij, Geerat J. 1946- (Gary Vermeij)

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Vermeij, Geerat J. 1946- (Gary Vermeij)


Born September 28, 1946, in the Netherlands; immigrated to the United States; married; wife's name Edith; children: Hermine. Education: Graduated from Princeton University, 1968; Yale University, Ph.D., 1971.


Office—Geology Department, University of California, Davis, 1 Shields Ave., Davis, CA 95616-8605. E-mail—[email protected].


Biologist and academic. University of Maryland, College Park, instructor, then professor of zoology; University of California, Davis, distinguished professor of geology.


Society of Naturalists (president, 1997), Society for the Study of Evolution, Ecological Society of America, Paleontology Society, Netherlands Malacology Society, Institute of Malacology.


Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal, National Academy of Sciences; recipient of research grants; MacArthur fellow, 1992; J.S. Guggenheim memorial fellow.


Biogeography and Adaptation: Patterns of Marine Life, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1978.

Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1987.

A Natural History of Shells, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1993.

Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life, W.H. Freeman (New York, NY), 1997.

Nature: An Economic History, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 2004.


Geerat J. Vermeij is an American biologist and academic. Born in the Netherlands, Vermeij immigrated to New Jersey as a child. Educated at Princeton University and Yale University, Vermeij went into a career in academia as a biologist. He published his first book, Biogeography and Adaptation: Patterns of Marine Life, in 1978.

Vermeij published Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life in 1987. The book looks into the field of paleobiology, examining the time course, nature, and environmental relations of adaptive improvement during evolution. Alan J. Kohn, writing in Science, remarked that "the picture that emerges from this work is of evidence marshaled from the fossil record of disparate evolutionary lineages generally supporting the escalation hypothesis, but it is limited and suggestive rather than decisive. The book thus appears at a most appropriate stage of evolution studies to stimulate research, especially in areas identified in the final chapter as requiring particular attention: measuring the effectiveness of adaptations, systematic study of species composition and interactions in ancient communities, and phylogeny, the determination of ancestor-descendant relationships," concluding that, "with the impressive scope and rich synthesis of this work, the author has assumed the mantle of a provocative pundit of paleobiology."

In 1993 Vermeij published A Natural History of Shells. The book studies molluscan shells from the perspective of housing construction in analyzing their shape, functionality, and design. Douglas Palmer, writing in the New Scientist, remarked that "this is a book well worth having." Palmer noted that Vermeij "wears his learning lightly and conveys his deep understanding and passion for shells in language plain enough for anyone with some background in biology." Due to this, Palmer observed that the book "is a fascinating biological view of shells as the products of living organisms, not just a treatise on shell growth." Palmer concluded: "If you want to know why and how the scallops ‘took off’ and the rest of the story, then I thoroughly recommend this book." W. Bruce Saunders, writing in Science, said that the book "provides excellent photographs, both in color and in black and white. Each specimen is carefully documented as to geographic source and size." Saunders concluded: "All in all, this is a highly informative and readable review of themes that will be familiar to those who already know Vermeij's work. For those unfamiliar with his many contributions, it is a well-written, even Philosophical introduction, overview, and syhthesis."

In 1997 Vermeij published an autobiographical account, Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life. Here he outlines the challenges he faced in his professional life in academia and in general with being blind. Writing on the National Federation of the Blind Web site, Brian Buhrow described the prose as "vivid and entertaining," noting that Vermeij explains his points "simply and clearly." Buhrow mentioned that "what makes this journey interesting, however, is not so much how he was able to break into a new scientific field in the mid 1960's, but rather that blindness was not, and should not have been, his overriding concern," continuing by calling it "a fascinating view into the mind of a leading scientist in his field." Buhrow concluded by saying: "I would recommend this book to any blind person who wants to know if he or she can succeed in a competitive environment, whether it be law, science, or letters. I would also recommend it to anyone sighted who doubts whether or not blind people can make it on terms of equality in a sighted world." He reiterated that he found the prose "written with clarity, feeling, and a fervor which makes it clear that the author speaks from real-life experience."

Vermeij published Nature: An Economic History in 2004. The book provides a summary of economic ideas concerning evolution and ecosystems, showing that the processes that produce evolution and biological change are a working economy in itself. Andrew P. Morriss, writing in Books & Culture, commented that Vermeij's "economics does not come from the same professional strata as his natural science. This leads him into some bizarre contentions, such as that the solution to food shortages in North Korea is improving transportation networks." Morriss added that "the failure to grapple with serious economics ultimately dooms Vermeij's attempt to synthesize the two disciplines. Ironically, had he focused on the serious economic literature, I believe he could have built a far more compelling case that there are important commonalities between the natural and social sciences." Morriss conceded that "the survey of the science is captivating in spite of such flaws. Vermeij writes well and has a knack for presenting illustrative details without overwhelming the reader. In the hands of a lesser writer, this would have been a far more difficult book to read." Morriss mentioned: "One reason I found Vermeij's book so compelling was his lucid descriptions of the details of myriad creatures, whose intricacies are a delight to the mind and the eye." Morriss concluded his review, stating: "Man's place is both within nature, for we are created beings, and in a position of authority over nature. Herein lies the problem with appeals to bring economics, a science of human nature, into harmony with ‘the rest of nature.’ They are doomed to failure unless they are built on an understanding of man's unique place in nature. We can't go ‘back to nature’ unless we know where nature is. We can't get wherever that is without knowing where we are. And, ultimately, we can't know either without knowing God."

Richard K. Bambach, writing in the American Scientist, called Vermeij "one of the master naturalists of our time," adding that "his command of the subtleties of animal interactions is exceptional. I think anyone can learn a great deal from this book." Bambach did take issue with several points, "despite the high qual- ity of thought and scholarship that went into the book." Bambach stated: "I mention the disagreements I have with some of the interpretations Vermeij makes only to warn the general reader that this book is not the final word on cause and effect in the history of life. But I believe that his conceptual viewpoint is of great value and that anyone will profit from learning how the biosphere functions as an economic system."



Vermeij, Geerat J., Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life, W.H. Freeman (New York, NY), 1997.


American Biology Teacher, October, 1997, Rita Hoots, review of Privileged Hands, p. 540.

American Scientist, May 1, 1988, Richard B. Aronson, review of Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life, p. 289; March 1, 2005, Richard K. Bambach, review of Nature: An Economic History, p. 185.

Animal Behaviour, August, 1988, Dana H. Geary, review of Evolution and Escalation, p. 1257.

BioScience, March, 1980, John A. McGowan, review of Biogeography and Adaptation: Patterns of Marine Life, p. 187.

Books & Culture, May 1, 2007, Andrew P. Morriss, review of Nature, p. 35.

Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, October, 1994, review of A Natural History of Shells, p. 314; July 1, 2005, D. Bantz, review of Nature, p. 2011.

Journal of Economic Literature, December, 2006, Joel Mokyr, review of Nature, p. 1005.

Nature, December 24, 1987, review of Evolution and Escalation, p. 706; February 24, 1994, review of A Natural History of Shells, p. 696.

New Scientist, February 12, 1994, Douglas Palmer, review of A Natural History of Shells; October 5, 1996, review of Privileged Hands, p. 47.

New York Times, February 7, 1995, Carol Kaesuk Yoon, "Scientist at Work."

Quarterly Review of Biology, September, 1994, Stewart B. Peck, review of A Natural History of Shells, p. 415; June 2005, Eric J. Chaisson, review of Nature, p. 235.

Science, September 4, 1987, Alan J. Kohn, review of Evolution and Escalation, p. 1235; April 8, 1994, W. Bruce Saunders, review of A Natural History of Shells, p. 295.

Science Books & Films, May, 1994, review of A Natural History of Shells, p. 105.

Times Literary Supplement, January 29, 1988, Mark Ridley, review of Evolution and Escalation, p. 118; August 12, 1994, Richard Fortey, review of A Natural History of Shells, p. 6; April 1, 2005, Paul R. Gross, review of Nature, p. 33.


National Federation of the Blind Web site, (February 13, 2008), Brian Buhrow, review of Privileged Hands.

Nutley Public Library Web site, (September 28, 2003), author profile.

University of California, Davis, Department of Geology Web site, (February 13, 2008), author profile.