Colinvaux was born in London, England. He attended University College School ("UCS") in London, where his activities included rowing in the Princess Elizabeth Cup at Royal Henley Regatta. After graduating from UCS, Colinvaux earned a commission in the Royal Artillery. He was stationed in Germany as part of the British occupation after World War II. Colinvaux achieved the rank of Second Lieutenant.
After leaving the army, Colinvaux matriculated at Cambridge University (Jesus College). After graduating, he emigrated to New Brunswick, Canada, where he was employed by a government soil survey. In New Brunswick, Colinvaux met his future wife, Llewellya Hillis of Windsor, Ontario. Hillis and Colinvaux married in British Columbia, before emigrating to the United States where Colinvaux earned his Ph.D. at Duke University. After completing post-doctoral studies at Yale University, Colinvaux and Hillis took up "his and her" appointments in the Department of Botany & Zoology at Ohio State University in 1964. They remained at the university until approximately 1990.
During his years at Ohio State University, Colinvaux won every teaching prize that could then be awarded for undergraduate teaching. He also played a role in ending the 1970 student riots at OSU (which is chronicled in Woody Hayes' memoir, You Win With People).
In approximately 1990, Colinvaux and Hillis left Ohio State University to take positions with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama. After leaving STRI, they moved to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where they are affiliated with the Marine Biological Laboratories.
Colinvaux and Hillis have two children, Catherine Colinvaux and Roger Colinvaux, both lawyers.
Colinvaux is the author of several books, including Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective (1978), The Fates of Nations (1980), and the textbook, Ecology (1993). Most recently, Colinvaux published a scientific memoir, Amazon Expeditions: My Quest for the Ice Age Equator (2008).
He was the recipient of the Ohio State University Distinguished Scholar Award in 1985.
He presented the PBS television series, What Ecology Really Says.
- Colinvaux, Paul A. (1973). Introduction to ecology. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-16498-4.
- Colinvaux, Paul A. (1980). The fates of nations: a biological theory of history. New York: Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-671-25204-6.
- Colinvaux, Paul A. (1978). Why big fierce animals are rare: an ecologist's perspective. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-02364-6.
- Colinvaux, Paul A. (1993). Ecology 2. New York: Wiley. ISBN 0-471-59954-9.
- Colinvaux, Paul A. (2007). Amazon expeditions: my quest for the ice-age equator. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-11544-X.