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PRIVILEGED HANDS by Geerat Vermeij


A Scientific Life

By Geerat Vermeij

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-7167-2954-7

 There are multiple stories, both personal and scientific, in this remarkable life of a blind scientist. A MacArthur awardee, editor of the journal Evolution, and a professor at the Univ. Calif., Davis, Vermeij is a Dutch-born scientist whose childhood glaucoma and multiple surgeries lead to the removal of his eyes at age three. Needless to say, his is a creative intelligence based on tactile skills and an undaunted spirit, bravura even. Vermeij has skimmed the shores of the Indian, Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic oceans, analyzing snails, clams, and other shell life, particularly in the intertidal zones where shells are alternately bathed by the waves or exposed to sunlight. In turn he has pored over museum collections and fossils to develop theories on species adaptation over the long and short hauls. He is in agreement with the punctuated equilibria theory of Gould and Eldridge and he has stressed the importance of predators in pushing species in particular locales toward thicker shells and smaller apertures--the better to avoid crushing and prying movements of crabs and the like. But that's just the science part. The tale spans the life from early segregation in schools for the blind to undergraduate Princeton days to graduate school at Yale (which admitted him only after a skeptical department chair discovered that Vermeij had no problem identifying specimens by touch alone). The role of readers, the importance of reading Braille and taking Braille notes are underscored with the strong stance on not isolating the blind and condemning them to sheltered workshop lives. And, while he has some caustic remarks on the ascendancy of molecular biology today, what really will endear him to the reader is his generosity and fair-mindedness in relation to critics and colleagues alike. ``Uplifting'' may smack of sentimentality, but Vermeij's life story surely is uplifting--and it contributes importantly to evolutionary science.