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-A scientist at work-
by Carol Yoon
Born with glaucoma and never able to make out more than fuzzy shapes, Dr. Vermeij (pronounced Ver-MAY), a paleontologist whose colleagues call him Gary, has been completely blind since the age of 3 and has never really seen a single creature, living or fossil. Yet by using his fingers to feel both the damage on shells as well as the girth and power of the claws and jaws that attack them, this professor at the University of California at Davis has found evidence of an ancient arms race. According to the histories recorded on these broken and mended fortresses, mollusks appear to have evolved ever more rugged armor to protect their delicate flesh just as their predators developed more vicious weaponry.
"Gary is a brilliant guy, an idea man, a synthesizer," said Dr. David Jablonski, a leading paleontologist at the University of Chicago. "It's very easy to think about how a predatory snail will catch a clam and kill it. But how does that play out over millions of years of ecological time? Gary is the guy who has really dug into that. His observations have swept the field and will still be cited 100 years from now. We should all be so lucky."
Researchers say paleontologists have typically ignored ecological interactions like predation, many focusing instead on how large-scale, physical factors like climate change shape life in the fossil record. Dr. Vermeij's views have forced them to rethink the importance of animals in shaping each other's evolutionary fates. Researchers say Dr. Vermeij's findings are among the foundations of the emerging field of paleoecology.
"It's anything but the romantic idea that nature is nice and kind and stable," said Dr. Vermeij. "To some people it isn't a pretty view of the world. It's nasty and things get nastier and nastier. Everyone is affected mostly by their enemies. That is indeed my view."
When meeting Dr. Vermeij, one is struck by an air of spareness. Born in the Netherlands and raised in New Jersey, this thin, almost gaunt 48-year-old man holds a visitor's attention with his quiet voice and a direct if unseeing gaze. His office likewise has a spartan feel, filled only with papers and boxes of shells, leaving the visitor to wonder how it is that this man who cannot see can manage to be an evolutionary biologist, a teacher, the editor of Evolution, the field's foremost journal, a MacArthur Fellow, an obsessive shell collector, a world- traveled explorer and a field naturalist.
But within these walls, sight is entirely superfluous. Data can be taken by touch. Voluminous books can be tapped out in sheaves of Braille pages. Words meant for the sighted can be written on a typewriter and the voice of a person reading can allow the perusal of anything ever written.
But it is the observation and exploration of the living world that would appear to be the most difficult hurdle for Dr. Vermeij. Instead, researchers say it is the greatest strength of this keen natural historian, who has worked in such places as Guam, Africa, New Zealand and Panama and who at times has strayed far from his beloved shells to publish on such diverse topics as leaf shape and the evolution of birds.
In fact, he is famous for the invention of what amounts to a unique method for observing the natural world. When biologists disembark on new shores, it is largely their eyes that inform them. Life is what can be seen. But for Dr. Vermeij, life is what can be grasped, with hand or foot, and examined in every other way.
"I listen and smell and feel," said Dr. Vermeij, a man who would seem to like nothing better than for you to forget that he is blind and who strikes a triumphant note when recounting tales of exploring snake-filled swamps and wading neck-deep in oceans swimming with sharks and stingrays. "I've stuck my hands into more holes and under more rocks than I care to mention, but my feeling is if you want to experience nature you've got to be unconstrained."
Researchers describe his ability to see with his hands as "phenomenal" and say that it is what makes Dr. Vermeij's view of evolution as convincing as it is unique. Colleagues recount in awe-struck tones his ability to feel differences among shells, quickly identifying them down to the level of subspecies. They tell tales of his exploring new habitats more thoroughly and with more insight than most seeing biologists.
Dr. Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, N.Y., described an experience escorting Dr. Vermeij to visit a fossil bed in Florida that Dr. Allmon had previously spent countless hours studying.
"He stood there for maybe 45 minutes feeling it," said Dr. Allmon, "and then proceeded to tell me almost everything there was to know about it -- the fighting conchs, the percent covered with barnacles, a layer of oysters. Now if I took you there and said, 'Look right here. See the layer?' you still wouldn't see it. I was trying not to show my amazement since I had heard this about him, but I was really blown away by that. He can do things with his hands that most of us can't do with our eyes."
Dr. Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist at Harvard University, describes Dr. Vermeij as "an acute thinker and an excellent observer." He said in an interview: "He has an uncanny way of perceiving correlations between shell forms and environment. He's noticed things that other molluscan biologists never did, even the most minor changes in the shapes of shells."
It is just such perceptions combined with what researchers describe as an encyclopedic knowledge of the world's mollusks and the literature on them, that has allowed Dr. Vermeij to pull together his wide-ranging theory on the perpetual cat- and-mouse games that he sees steering the course of evolution.
Dr. Vermeij's view is based not on a single breakthrough experiment. Rather it was slowly formulated over two decades as he, often working with his wife and colleague, Dr. Edith Zipser, also at the University of California at Davis, traveled the globe in search of the histories written on broken shells.
A big piece of the puzzle was live-to-tell scars, repaired breaks where predators had tried but failed to get in. Looking at shells as old as 300 million years, Dr. Vermeij and his colleagues found that ancient shells showed fewer repairs and recent shells showed more. Seeing these permanent records of narrow escapes growing more frequent over time, the researchers suggested that the ability to escape predators was becoming an increasingly important key to survival. Dr. Vermeij also noticed that those shells whose geometry made them more vulnerable to breakage seemed to be on the decline or restricted to places like the deep sea where modern, well-armed predators did not abound.
In risky habitats full of light and life and predators, he documented evidence of architectural innovations in more modern shells, changes that helped to protect a shell's inhabitant. Over time shells appeared more tightly coiled, with greater buttressing, showing more teeth lining increasingly smaller openings in heavily guarded entryways.
Meanwhile, the fossil record showed crabs, fish and others who would dine on these shelled delicacies diversifying and becoming better at cracking, popping, drilling and peeling their victims open -- all mounting evidence in favor of a hypothesis that predicts that life on earth will only get more and more difficult.
Throughout his career, Dr. Vermeij has had to cope with opposition from people who doubted that a blind shell enthusiast could become a scientist. The list runs from government officials who initially refused to give him scholarship money to hire readers so he could study biology at Princeton, to the faculty at the University of Maryland at College Park who gave him a trial position before allowing him to assume a tenure-track job. In an interview for graduate school at Yale University, a biology professor made him submit to a practical test.
"He asked me how I could possibly read the literature, how I could possibly do this, that and the other thing," said Dr. Vermeij. "He decided that the clincher would be for me to fail at the thing I was supposed to be the best at, shells. So he took me down to the Yale Peabody Museum collection. He pulled out a couple of shells and asked me what they were and I got them right, fortunately. I am forever grateful to someone flexible who, like any good scientist, can change his or her mind."
Ironically, researchers now say that it may be his blindness and the tactile talents which he developed because of it that have allowed him to see what others do not.
Even Dr. Vermeij himself acknowledged that his view of the living world must ultimately be different. "It is interesting and I really haven't come to grips with it," he said. "I know that when I look at shells I look at them tactilely. I know that I see characteristics differently from other people. For example, when I read people's descriptions I think they're just not describing what I see and in turn I see things that they don't. Feeling them does predispose one to noticing some things that other people would be less aware of, so that has played a role."
After a short time talking to a person who has accomplished all he set out to do without the aid of sight, one soon begins to come to Dr. Vermeij's opinion that blindness, in itself, is a rather dull point of discussion. Self-described as a "life-long opponent of affirmative action" for all minorities, he takes as harshly unsentimental a view of the blind as he does of the evolution of life.
"I am a strong disbeliever in seeing things from the point of view of being handicapped, gender, race and all the rest of it," said Dr. Vermeij, who explains that he hurried through Princeton and Yale in three years each on full scholarships so as not to be a "parasite."
"All my life I have fought hard to integrate into society and I think that's the way any minority group should work," he said. "If you give people preferential treatment, others will always say, 'Ah well, he got this because he's blind.' You can never live that down. The idea is to eliminate the barriers to the point that nobody will care."
And perhaps, in his case, that point has been reached.
"With anyone who's apart any way from the norm you notice it at first," said
Dr. Gould. "But after a while, he's just Gary."
The New York Times