With his trained fingertips, blind biologist Geerat Vermeij discovered important laws in evolution

With his trained fingertips, blind biologist Geerat Vermeij discovered important laws in evolution

It must have been about ten years ago. At my office in Naturalis I hosted a special visitor for a few days: the famous Dutch biologist Geerat Vermeij, professor at the University of California in Davis, winner of three prestigious scientific prizes, member of the National Academy of Sciences and author of seven groundbreaking books.

That morning he asked me if I could give him something Plectostomy‘s could show – small Malaysian snails of a few millimeters in size with limestone spines on the snail shell that I was researching at the time. I grabbed a tube with a few dried specimens, removed the cotton plug from the opening and scattered the snail shells on Vermeij’s palm. With the index finger of his other hand he gently touched one of the fragile objects. His eyes seemed to stare into the distance and a big smile appeared on his face. “Oh yes, indeed!” he said, with a slight American accent and a cheerful intonation, “like a miniatureMurex!” – a genus of large sea snails with shells full of lumps and thorns.

Geerat Vermeij is blind. He was born (in Sappemeer in 1946) with congenital glaucoma, which caused him unbearable pain for the first three and a half years of his life, despite operations, treatments and medications, and severely limited his vision. Ultimately, his desperate parents decided – “a wise decision,” says Vermeij – to follow the doctor’s advice and have both of their son’s eyes removed. In his autobiography, Vermeij writes how he saw a yellow light on the operating table, “and then there was nothing left.”

Shells on the windowsill

Once recovered, Vermeij spent five years at a series of spartan and rather repressive boarding schools for the blind and partially sighted in Huis ter Heide, Den Dolder, Schoorl and Bussum. What he mainly remembers from that period are the daily torment with the spoonful of obligatory cod liver oil and his futile attempts to do something about nature study: collecting and sorting pebbles by feeling, for example – in vain because it was systematically discouraged. However, he was introduced to the blessings of Braille. It “makes the blind literate,” he says. “We learn how words are spelled; it makes us independent.” His library in his office in Davis consists of endless rows of hanging files with scientific publications transcribed into Braille. In addition, he uses an army of dedicated and initiated readers, who read to him but also quickly recognize the passages that are essential to him.

He eventually ended up in the US because his parents decided to emigrate in 1955. In New Jersey, Vermeij ended up in an educational system that dealt with blind people in a very different (and, for him, much better) way. He went to a normal school. He learned to use the typewriter so that he could also communicate via typed ‘normal’ text. And he came under the care of teachers like Mrs. Saplow, who allowed him to fully join in with the rest of the class and allowed his interest in science and nature to flourish. One day she brought him a Braille book that started with a word he didn’t know yet: trilobites.

From that moment on, Vermeij devoured everything he could find in Braille about geology, biology and science. Another teacher brought tropical shells from her vacation in Florida and displayed them on the classroom windowsill. They “felt as if they had been made by a sculptor […]. The ribs on the clam were fresh and crisp and well-seasoned […] small raised scales. The inside of the shells was not rough but polished smoother than I ever thought possible. There were also snail shells with the most unlikely shapes. What about the lightning whelk, with a wound crown on one side and an extended trunk on the other?”

Then his interest was aroused in objects of natural history and ultimately the ecological and evolutionary questions they raised. “My curiosity was unbridled,” he writes in his beautiful autobiography Privileged Hands (which unfortunately has not been translated into Dutch). “I told anyone who would listen that I wanted to become a conchologist. I hardly knew what that was, but that term was used for shell collectors in the books I read.” And that is what Vermeij became.

In his new book he looks for parallels between evolution and economics

But he became so much more. With his trained fingertips he managed to extract secrets from shells (contemporary, but also fossil) that led him to the discovery of important evolutionary laws. Although as a snail collector he was initially inclined to include only the coolest, most beautiful specimens in his collection, his later career was set in motion by the realization that a world of natural history insight opens up for the conchologist who also knows how to appreciate imperfect specimens. Because damaged shells often belong to snails that have been attacked by a predator during their lives, survived and repaired the damage. “Organisms have enemies and enemies have consequences,” says Vermeij.

And those consequences, in the long term and on a large scale, says Vermeij, are expressed in what he calls evolutionary escalation: the simultaneous evolution of an entire fauna as a result of constant exposure to predators and competitors that make their lives difficult. Vermeij emphasizes that there is often no interaction: the evolutionary pressure mainly comes ‘from above’. It is the predators that influence the evolution of the prey, much less the other way around, except perhaps in specific and rare cases where one predator species is dependent on one prey species and the prey also has no other predators. In such a case you could get into a mutual arms race, but Vermeij hardly encounters this in his paleontological research. Much more often he sees that the defense of an entire group of prey species evolves as a result of a change in danger. For example, he saw that in the Cambrian period, half a billion years ago, all kinds of organisms suddenly started to dig into the seabed – an unmistakable evolutionary response to code red: the evolution of large, powerful predators.

Evolution and economics

His focus on predation and danger has also made Vermeij look at human activities as an economy in a completely different way. In his book Nature: An Economic History he makes a successful attempt to look for parallels between evolution and economics. For example, by feeling thousands of fossil snail shells, he discovered that many of them have a tooth on the edge of the mouth opening. With this so-called labral tooth, predatory snails can open their prey (often a barnacle or a shellfish) much faster than they could without that tooth. It is therefore no wonder that, as Vermeij discovered, this labral tooth has evolved independently no less than sixty times in the past eighty million years, but almost exclusively under warm, nutrient-rich conditions.

Just like in the economy, a situation in which a lot of energy is pumped around in an ecosystem provides more opportunities for innovation and those innovations (such as that labral tooth) simultaneously grow the economy. In the human economy this can be seen in the amount of money circulating, in the natural economy of the ecosystem in the amount of food or energy.

You could call him a macroevolutionary biologist: someone who is always looking for patterns that transcend the specific. And certainly not just when it comes to shells. If you look at his publications in recent years you will come across titles such as, ‘forbidden phenotypes and the limitations of evolution’, ‘plant defenses on land and underwater: why so different?’ and ‘why don’t molluscs make noise?’ He wrote articles about invasive exotic species, the higher biodiversity on land compared to the sea, chronically rare species, the evolution of warm-bloodedness, large body size, photosynthesis in molluscs, bacteria that help the growth of oyster shells, and why plants have hairs .

Quite logical, you may think: a talented, curious biologist who is blind and therefore cannot do research himself, cannot do much else than read a lot of literature, perhaps touch some shells, think a lot and thus come up with new ideas and write summary articles there. Overwrite.

But the reality is different. From an early age, Vermeij did not let his blindness stand in the way of the life of a field biologist. With colleagues or with his wife, molecular biologist Edith Zipser, he conducted research on marine molluscs and crabs. Against the advice of all overprotective officials, he joins expedition ships, climbs rope ladders and jumps from bouncing boats to shore and back again. He sticks his hands under protruding rocks and corals in search of shellfish. He sometimes gets stung by a sea urchin or pinched by a crab, but it has always gone well, he says. Except for when he got stung in the foot by a small stingray. Oh yeah, and that time he got stitches in his fingers from a moray eel bite. But he also waves that away as a small price to pay for the free life of the naturalist.

Thickets of bicycles

And indeed, when you are out with him, even in an environment as harmless as Leiden, he behaves like any other field biologist. Although he uses other senses, he talks about animals and plants that he ‘sees’. He is constantly alert to sounds, shapes and smells. When I walked with him past the bicycle shed at Leiden Central Station, he immediately noticed the many house sparrows chattering in the ‘bushes’ of parked bicycles.

And now there is his latest book, The Evolution of Power. In this project, the 77-year-old paleontologist looks for the evolution of power. “Living organisms need energy and time to use or exert that energy,” he says. “And what is energy × time? Assets!” Power manifests itself in nature in many ways, such as the strength of a crab claw, the speed of a bird of prey or the size of a Tyrannosaurus rex. And high power generally provides benefits in nature. Apart from some ups and downs around mass extinctions, Vermeij sees body size, speed, eating ability and growth rate increasing over geological time.

And he sees this at an individual but also at a group level: “Giant predators from the Cretaceous were indeed larger than today’s largest predators, but they had a lower metabolism and operated less in groups than today’s predatory mammals. A large pack of wolves or orcas has a higher power than a single one T. rex“, he says.

He climbs rope ladders and jumps from bouncing dinghies

And as far as he is concerned, humans are the disturbing culmination of that trend. “In the last few centuries, our ability as a species has increased by a factor of 800,” he says: the same increase in power as has happened in the rest of nature in the last three billion years. As humans have overcome their limitations, tapped into energy sources that living nature has never been able to use, and collaborated in groups that are larger than ever, a monopoly of a single species has emerged. And that is the first time in the history of the earth. “Economists do not like monopolies, and it is also an ecologically untenable situation,” says Vermeij, “because there are no other organisms that can keep us in check.”

And so, he thinks, we should do that ourselves. It should be possible to slow the growth of the economy without immediately causing a recession or depression, he thinks. And that is perhaps the most important insight of the many that that blind boy from Sappemeer has given us in his long, playful and fruitful life as a biologist.