Reef Madness by David Dobbs

Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral is a book about the origins of modern science, the interplay between theory and empiricism, the machinations of the Victorian scientific gentry, epic rivalries, polyps and plankton.
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Reef Madness is by David Dobbs, of Neuron Culture here on Scienceblogs. Look for an upcoming Bloggingheads.tv discussion between David and me, mainly about this book.

~ A Repost because it is still a good book ~


This is a book about the competing theories presented by Alexander Agassiz and Charles Darwin about the formation of tropical coral reefs. Alexander was the accomplished son of the very famous Louis Agassiz, who is most famous today for his Glacial Theory of climate change. Charles Darwin, you’ve certainly heard of already.

Louis Agassiz was the Carl Sagan of the 19th century. His public presentations captured the hearts and minds of pre-and post-Civil War America, and he became the foreign born expert on billions and billions of fish, with the ear of the public and the press. When he died the newspaper headlines were the same size and style as though he had been a beloved president. He invented the Big American Museum when he constructed the Museum of Comparative Zoology, known widely as “The MCZ” (his students later created the other, lesser museums such as the American Museum of Natural History and so on). He invented Big Science, raised vast funds and funneled them into expensive projects, even building large portions of Harvard’s MCZ during the Civil War when most other major building projects were on hold.

And he was the world’s most famous, staunchest, and influential creationist.

Louis was the central figure on the creationist side in the Darwinian Debate, so naturally, the story of Alexander Agassiz, Louis’ son … as he grew into the scientific world, took over his father’s duties running the Museum of Comparaive Zoology, and eventually accepted Evolution ala Darwin … would be an interesting story on its own, and that story is told in perfect detail and with duly rich context by David Dobbs in Reef Madness.

But that is not the main thrust of this book, only important (and deeply and multifariously ironic) background.

Early in his career as the world’s most famous geologist, Charles Darwin developed a theory of how coral reefs form. This theory overthrew the previously articulated view of his respected senior and quasi-mentor, Charles Lyell. Darwin’s theory of coral reef formation stood for quite some time, but when Alexander Agassiz started his own investigation of coral reef structures, he found Darwin’s theory lacking. So just as Alexander was forced, by the pure empirical weight of evidence and powerful logic of the theory, to accept (over time, and in bits and pieces) Darwin’s evolutionary theories (very much contrary to his own father’s beliefs) he also found strong empirical reasons to think that Darwin had gotten the reefs wrong. Perhaps he saw that as poetic.

But wait. This is about coral reefs? “Who cares about reefs?” you say! Well, at the time, everybody did. The reefs were interesting, and to some extent important (depending on who you were), but the real significance of coral reef formation was probably the fact that whatever was going on with these features of the ocean involved fundamental and large scale processes that could only be understood with a true understanding of planetary geology and ecology, in a broad historical context. The factors that were thought to affect the development and growth of coral reefs were no less than the factors that determined the distribution of islands, and dry vs. inundated land, and the overall behavior of the earth itself. In mid to late 19th century science, a good explanation for the coral reefs was the “unifying theory” (like ‘string theory’) of the day. It was the dark matter of the Victorian age. The ante- and postbellum Theory of Relativity. And, in the public eye, it was obviously important because larger-than-life wildly popular scientists were arguing over it.

So what was the conflict?

Darwin’s theory: Reefs formed on high points of sub-oceanic land that continuously sunk lower and lower. So, an island standing above the sea would have coral growing on it’s side all around. As the island sank lower, there would be a small island surrounded by a lagoon, in turn surrounded by a ring of reef grown up from the original coral deposit. Then, as the island sank still lower, there would only be the ever-growing atoll of coral, the ring of reef, around a very small island or a sea-mount totally submerged. This single mechanism of coral growth and island subsidence explained the full range of reefs commonly found. Except for the ones it didn’t explain, which were “exceptions.”

Alexander Agassiz’s theory: Reefs were formed by build-up from below. Since coral, the main ingredient in a reef, needed to live relatively near the surface, the initial buildup was not coral, but other stuff (mainly plankton), and then, as the build-up got near enough the surface, coral started to grow and you ended up with a reef.

Darwin’s theory was elegant, explained a large number of reefs, and was obviously true if you just went out and looked at the reefs.

Agassiz’ theory was explicitly not elegant, and allowed for more variation in reef form, explained the “exceptions” better (which included the two largest reefs in the world and many other reefs) and was obviously true if you just went out and looked at the reefs.

As Dobbs points out in his excellent book, and this is probably the main thrust of his work, the REAL difference between the two was in the relationship between theory and empirically driven models. Darwin had a theory based on a small number of observations that explained everything (exceptions excepted) and Agassiz had a theory that grew out of literally years of fieldwork done by him and his colleagues and seemed to explain more, if somewhat less elegantly. Theory from above vs. brute force from below. Which was the proper way to do science? What would the future of science embrace as its primary methodology?

The events that accompany and provide background to this theoretico-empirical jaunt are fascinating, heart-wrenching, astonishing. The story of Louis, Alexander, and their relatives, colleagues, friends and rivals is fascinating. The transformations experienced by the various actors (or in some cases, lack of transformation) mirror or underscore by contrast the transformation made by nascent modern science, and society itself.

One of my favorite “moments” in the history is this: Louis Agassiz, Darwin’s primary rival, sends a letter of introduction along with his son, a budding biologist visiting England … to Charles Darwin, in which he tells Darwin that he will find his son more amenable to evolutionary thinking that Louis would ever be in his life. This is the first (sort of direct) empirical evidence we have, according to Dobbs, of Alexander accepting evolution, though there are earlier clues. After the meeting, Darwin writes a letter to a colleague noting that the young man was certainly an evolutionist.

There are two things that needed to happen before the nature of coral reefs, at the large and small scale and under a wide range of conditions, could be understood. One was to realize that sea level is not static. It utterly blows my mind that Darwin (a very smart guy) and the rest of them could argue over how much the land could go up and down and in which direction, but not consider that the sea level would vary. Once you KNOW the sea level goes up and down by about 100 meters, you see evidence of it everywhere. It explains a LOT about coral reefs. But they did not understand this. The second thing they needed was data … more data than Alexander Agassiz had collected in literally years (cumulative) at sea, during which time he inspected virtually every tropical reef system on the planet.

What they needed was deep drill hole data. The drill hole data would be easily able to distinguish between a Darwin-style reef formation and an Agassiz-style reef formation. Although there was some drilling data at the time, it was not enough and it tended to be ambiguous. It was not until 1950 that the hole that was needed was drilled.

So, why did they drill that hole in 1950? What did it tell us about who was right? Also, what is the greatest irony EVER to have happened in science, which is intimately involved in this story? And, what ultimately came of Alexander’s final, overarching theory of reef formation, and the manuscript that presents it?

Read the book. I’m not telling you any more.

Reef Madness is an enjoyable, compelling read. If you are a science nerd and don’t read this then, well, you’re not really a science nerd. Sorry . Reef Madness is also an excellent, scholarly (but accessible) description and analysis of what really is a lost chapter in the history of science. If you teach a course on the history of science or anything closely related, consider this book as a supplementary text. I enjoyed this book imensely and I highly recommend it.