Geerat Vermeij, Evolutionary Biologist

All organisms endure an arms race. We have bacteria and antibiotics, that's kind of an arms race. We have shells and shell-breaking predators, that's a classic arms race. Everything in biology really is an arms race. -- Geerat Vermeij

Evolutionary Biologist Geerat Vermeij, has spent his career studying the form and function of shells. Blind since childhood and equipped with an acute sense of touch, Vermeij studies molluscs in a completely unique way. With his fingertips, he coaxes out their ancient history from their shells, exposing secrets embroidered in the shells' curves, chips, battle scars and ridge lines. He has reveled the creativity of molluscs, and probably knows more about molluscs and their shells than anyone alive.

"I think that a body plan can be pushed incredibly far," Vermeij says. "When you think about molluscs, they're everything from slow, tank-like snails, to very, very fast squid that have large brains and very, very good eyes. There is virtually nothing that you can't do with a molluscan body plan. It may take evolutionary time to get there, but you can get there. And, well, for me, the most amazing things about molluscs is their sheer beauty—the diversity on a simple theme of spiral growth, how much you can do with a simple theme like spiral growth. They show all these wonderful variations, it's kind of like listening to Bach all your life.”

About Geerat Vermeij’s career

Geerat Vermeij, is a Professor of Marine Ecology and Paleoecology at the University of California, Davis. He is probably best known for his work chronicling the arms race among long-extinct molluscs and their predators. By examining and analyzing fossils for evidence of interspecies competition and predation, Vermeij has prompted the field of paleobiology to acknowledge the profound influences creatures have on fashioning each other's evolutionary fates.

Vermeij has published nearly a hundred scientific papers and four books, including Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life, A Natural History of Shells, and a recent autobiography entitled Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life. He served as editor for Evolution, the field's foremost journal, has a world-class collection of shells, and is an intrepid field naturalist and explorer of the coasts of nearly every continent. Vermeij received a MacArthur Fellowship, the “genius” grant in 1992, and in 2000 was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.

Geerat Vermeij
Career Questions and Answers

How did you choose your present profession?
I knew what I wanted to be when I was ten years old. I wanted to be a conchologist, then a biologist, in any case a scientist who does research and who gets to go to all sorts of interesting places. I never wavered from this path. Fortunately, my profession chose to allow me to practice it as professor.

What would you recommend for students wanting to pursue a similar career?
If students want a research-oriented career in science, they need three interrelated qualities in abundance: a boundless curiosity about the world, a passion for doing the necessary hard work and a willingness to work under adverse circumstances and with little pay. You have to love this kind of work.

What do you like best about your profession?
I like research and its associated reading and writing best in my profession. The process of discovering new facts, of adding to knowledge, of building a body of theory based on one's own work and the accumulated knowledge of others, is immensely rewarding. I learn every day, and I enjoy communicating what I have learned and what I think I know to others. For me, the preferred medium is the written word. I also enjoy lecturing or leading discussions in my classes.

What web sites and references would you recommend for viewers interested in your work that was featured in The Shape of Life series?
Vermeij, GJ (2010) The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization. Thomas Dunn Books, St. Martin’s Press. New York.
Vermeij, GJ (1993) A Natural History of Shells. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Vermeij, GJ and RK Grosberg (2010) The Great Divergence: When Did Diversity on Land Exceed That in the Sea? Integrative and Comparative Biology. 50(4):675-682. DOI: 10.1093/icb/icq078