I'm glad you're here!
My new book, Purpose and Desire, is now available for sale in hardcover or kindle versions. It is available for order at purposeanddesirebook.com!
And you can visit my blog Purpose and Desire. Do we have evolution right? where I continue the critique of modern evolutionary thought, begun in Purpose and Desire.
Who I Am
I am a physiologist by training, but with a deep interest in the interface of physiology with evolution, ecology and adaptation. You can obtain an abbreviated CV here. You can get the whole magilla here.
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 three books that I am very proud of. My first, The Extended Organism was about why animals build things. My second, The Tinkerer's Accomplice, was about the problem of design in biology. My third book, Purpose and Desire, takes a critical look at the problem of adaptation, where I argue that we have been getting evolution wrong, going on for about a century now. The book will be published in September 2017, by HarperOne, a imprint of HarperCollins.
My contrarianism 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 in the very place that should be defending it most strenuously: the academy.
What I Do
I teach at the interface of physiology, ecology and evolution.
I teach two principal courses: Animal Physiology, and Physics of Life. In collaboration with Prof Berry Pinshow of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, I have produced a hybrid online/field course, Biophysical Field Methods, which combines online instruction with a field expedition to the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre in Namibia to apply the lessons learned online. I have various other projects underway, which you can see on my teaching page.
I'm very much a traditional teacher. I believe we have known for more than two millennia how to teach effectively, and little has come along in the interim that much improves things. I use the blackboard a lot (also Blackboard!), even though my chalkmanship and artistic skills are atrocious.
Nevertheless, I have tried to keep up with the times: quite a lot of my course content is media. Physics of Life taught me quite a bit about media production. Since 2014, Animal Physiology has been taught as a completely online course. Physics of Life is currently under development as a fully online course. As I develop online courses, I make them available at udemy.com. Check out my udemy instructor's page to see what's available.
My research is broadly concerned with how organisms interact with their environments: adaptation, in a word.
Because I am a physiologist, that broad interest has led me to study the clever ways that animals and plants adaptively manage the flows of matter and energy between themselves and their environments. Pursuing that interest has led me to some heterodox conclusions about the nature of adaptation, how evolution works, and the emergence of intentionality and design. This has led to the publication of three books, The Extended Organism (2000), and The Tinkerer's Accomplice (2007), and a third, Purpose and Desire, to be published in September 2017 by HarperOne.
This research has played out in three broad areas, along with a grab-bag of miscellaneous stuff. These are: how animals use blood flow to manage heat exchange between themselves and their evironments; how termites create their own adaptive landscapes; and most recently, new models of adaptation in complex environments. I wish I could say there was a logic behind it all, but there's not: I mostly stumble into things that interest me. Nevertheless, I have managed to stumble into deeper reflections on adaptation in physiology and evolution, and the nature of homeostasis, a widely trivialized and deeply misunderstood concept that everyone thinks they understand, but really don't.
In the past few years, I have been learning the dark arts of electronic media production. It began with a series of instructional videos for my course Physics of Life, starting with simple videotaped lectures, but evolving into more highly produced mini-documentaries on topics that range from structure of sounds to water strider locomotion. This has led me to producing online courses, which you can see on my teaching page.
Having become a true believer, I spend a lot of time evangelizing to my colleagues about electronic media in education. The world of higher education is changing and changing fast, fueled largely by increasingly sophisticated on-line challengers to higher ed's legacy model of content delivery: the 'sage on a stage' forcing students to sit in a room and listening to us, the professors. The challenge we, the faculty, face will be how to use new tools in electronic media to preserve what we have known since Socrates about teaching: the intellectual engagement of student and professor. We, the faculty can be our own worst enemies on this.
As part of developing online media, I have had to develop skills which I never imagined I would need as a biology professor, including video production, photography, and against all advice that is wise, music.
I am a scholar and a scientist and therefore I write. Writing is important because writing is thinking: getting it down on the page is the best way of getting it all to make sense. Getting it down on the page so that it makes sense to someone else is the essential icing on the cake.
I am also a better writer than a speaker.
My publications range from popular commentary to book reviews, to books, and to that mainstay of the modern science, journal publications. I consider media to be a form of publication as well.
I have a new book coming out, Purpose and Desire, to be released on 12 September 2017 by HarperOne. It is available for prepublication sale now at purposeanddesirebook.com
I strive, wherever it is possible, to make my publications available as easily accessible pdf documents, which are listed on my publications pages. If a publication cannot be shared, it is because of copyright restrictions. In that case, please write to me: I can sometimes provide individual copies if I'm allowed.