Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

David Dobbs

Language: English

Pages: 320

ISBN: 0375421610

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Reef Madness opens up the world of nineteenth-century science and philosophy at a moment when the nature of scientific thought was changing, when what we call “science” (the word did not even exist) was spoken of as “natural philosophy” and was a part of theology, the study of “God’s natural works.”
This is how what is now called science, until then based on the presence and hence the authority of God, moved toward reliance on observable phenomena as evidence of truth. At the book’s center, two of that century’s most bitter debates: one about the theory of natural selection, the other about the origin of coral.
Caught in the grip of these controversies were two men considered to be the gods of the nineteenth-century scientific world: Charles Darwin, the most controversial and ultimately the most influential; and the Swiss-born zoologist Louis Agassiz, almost forgotten today but at the time even more lionized than Darwin.
Agassiz was a paleontologist, the first to classify the fossil fish of the planet, and the first to conceive the idea of the ice age that altered our view of the Earth. He taught at Harvard, founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology, was one of the founders of the Smithsonian and of the National Academy of Sciences, and was considered the greatest lecturer of his time—eloquent, charming, spellbinding. Among his admirers: Emerson, Theodore Roosevelt, William James, and Thoreau. Agassiz believed that nature was so vast, complicated, and elegantly ordered that it could only be the work of God.
We see how this central principle of Agassiz’s was threatened by Darwin’s most central theory—that species change through natural causes, that we exist not because we’re meant to but because we happen to. Agassiz, forced either to disprove Darwin’s principle or give up his own, went to war full tilt against the theory of natural selection. It was a war that, beyond its own drama, had a second important effect on the new world of science.
David Dobbs tells how Agassiz’s son, Alexander, one of the most respected naturalists of his time, who witnessed his father’s rise and tragic defeat yet supported the theory of natural selection over his father’s objections, himself became locked in combat with Darwin.
The subject of contention was the “coral reef problem.” As a young man of twenty-six, Darwin, with only a small amount of data, put forth a theory about the formation of these huge beautiful forms composed of the skeletons of tiny animals that survive in shallow water. It explained how the reefs could rise on foundations that emerged from the Pacific’s greatest depths. This became the subject of Darwin’s first long paper, and it propelled him to the highest circles of British science.
The obsessed younger Agassiz spent the next thirty years in a vain effort to disprove Darwin’s coral theory, traveling 300,000 miles of ocean and looking at every coral mass. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for oceanography, through which, in 1950, the question of the origin of coral was finally resolved.
In Reef Madness, Dobbs looks at the nature of scientific theory. He shows how Darwin was crucially influenced by his encounters with the Agassiz father and son, and how the coral problem prefigured the fierce battle about evolution.
Original, illuminating, and fascinating, Reef Madness uses these large human struggles, which devastated two lives and shaped the thinking of another, to make real the Victorian world of science and to show how it affected the century that followed and continues to this day to affect our own.

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charming, and generous master could be overbearing and capricious. Even more discouraging, he acknowledged progress reluctantly. He scolded and berated, changed the requirements for advancement, and expanded the students’ curatorial duties, further slowing their progress. Some times he failed to credit students who had authored significant portions of works published under his name. He usually found their own papers not quite worthy of publication and often found the students themselves not quite

early 1864 he wrote to Fritz Müller, a German zoologist becoming known as a Darwin champion, expressing what might be called his growing scientific pragmatism. His statements are striking given Louis’s presence in the same building. Nothing will give me greater pleasure than to answer your questions about [a phylum of marine invertebrates that both Alex and Müller studied] and Darwin. It is only by discussing these broad questions in the most unprejudiced manner that we may hope to arrive at the

receives as a well-informed, constructive argument founded on extensive research and knowledge. While he has not yet accepted Darwin, he has done something for the time more important: He has found a stance distinct from his father’s by rejecting the ideologization of science by which Louis rose and fell. This stance freed Alex intellectually and emotionally to pursue his own path in science. For the time, however, he was starting to feel stuck at the museum. The war increased his restlessness;

natural history in Luanne, Zurich, Heidelberg, Vienna, and Munich. He took both degrees in early 1830, at the age of twenty-two. Then he returned home for a few months to finish his first book, a catalog of fish, and planned the next stage of his campaign: Paris. Louis’s ambitions had included Paris from the beginning, for Paris was then Europe’s most important centre of natural history study, outranking both London and Munich. At its heart was the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle, the largest and

Hutton and Play air, British science had grown increasingly confident in its empiricist principles. Finally Lyell simply made a better case for uniformitarianism than Hutton had, demonstrating repeatedly over three volumes how it was not just possible but necessary, as his book’s subtitle put it, to “explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface by reference to causes now in operation.” Principles similarly pressed another Lyell innovation: It rejected inductivist taboos regarding

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