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  • Debbie and Me at Chatsworth House

    My wife, Debbie, and me, enjoying an ice cream at the beautiful Chatsworth House, in England's Peak District, while we were on sabbatical at Cambridge University in the spring of 2010.

    Photo by Petra Gruber

    Who I am

    I am a physiologist by training, but with a deep interest in the interface of physiology with evolution, ecology and adaptation.

    This interest has led me into an eclectic mix of research problems, including how alligators use blood to move heat around their bodies, how a bird embryo works with an incubating parent to manage heat flow through the egg, how black beetles, stone plants and trap-door spiders living in deserts manage their temperatures in the harsh environments they inhabit, and, most recently, how termites build structures to manage the physiology of their colonies.

    For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passionate attachment to deserts. I think this came from my growing up in California, which involved a fair bit of knocking around the desert southwest. Since 1985, the object of my affections has been the arid zones of southern Africa. My attachment to southern Africa is more than professional: I met my wife, Debbie, in Cape Town, and our first daughter, Jackie, was born there. In addition to those family ties, many of my best friends are living there still.

    Since 1990, I have been on the faculty of the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry in Syracuse, New York. That has allowed me to indulge my other great love, carrying on long conversations with students about biology, both formally in the classroom, and informally out of the classroom.

    My philosophy of both teaching and research is to always ask the radical question. Nothing arouses my suspicion more readily than consensus: by the time wisdom has become conventional, it’s a safe bet that it has accumulated sufficient baggage to hold some interesting errors in there somewhere. The job of people like me, I believe, is to ferret those out: it’s the only way we can grow intellectually.

    This contarian streak has led me to write two books that I am very proud of, one on why animals build things, and the other on the problem of design in biology. You can read more about them on my publications page, if you like.

    It has also led me on a long odyssey to the political right, to the amusement (and sometimes dismay) of friends and colleagues. Among other things, this odyssey has led me into another of my curious obsessions: the grave threat facing intellectual freedom in the modern world. This threat is, I believe, pervasive. Paradoxically, nowhere is the threat graver than the very place that should be defending it most strenuously: the academy. You can read more about this on my blog, if you wish.