There are many fascinating stories linked to the early days of evolutionary biology and geology, and more than one of them is intertwined with our understanding of coral reefs. I had always thought that Darwin’s interaction with the question of how coral reefs form was central to Darwin’s own formation as a scientist, in part because of Charles Lyell. Lyell was the Big Kahuna of geology and earth science of the day, and had more or less established the standing theory of how coral reefs formed. Darwin, on observing reefs “in the wild” very quickly realized that Lyell was mostly wrong, and proceeded to develop his own models for reef formation. But Darwin was timid, intimidated even, in the light of Lyell’s monumental stature in the field. This, I think, caused Darwin to use a multi-faceted approach to documenting his ideas and developing his models that then became something of a template for his later work, On the Origin of Species.

What could have been a major showdown between Lyell and Darwin turned out much differently. By the time Darwin had returned from The VoyageBooks on Travelogues) (of the Beagle) Lyell and others were aware of Darwin’s new models of reef formation. If Lyell was going to have a negative reaction to Darwin’s revisions of his (Lyell’s) work, that reaction was significantly reduced by the delay between first hearing that there was a revision and meeting up again with young Charles. As I understand it, Lyell was quite happy to have his work overturned.

But there was conflict, and the conflict continued for decades and indirectly or directly engaged everybody who was anybody in the field at the time. David Dobbs writes:

Today the main argument about coral reefs is how to save them. But in the 1800s, the question of how coral reefs arose, known as the “coral reef problem,” ranked second only to the “the species question” in ferocity. In many ways it reprised the evolutionary debate, engaging many of the same people and ideas. It provided both an overture and a long coda to the fight over Darwinism. The coral reef problem did not concern the origin of species or humankind’s descent. Yet it reiterated the evolutionary debate’s vexing questions about the importance of evidence, the proper construction of theory, and the reliability of powerful abstractions.


The “Coral Reef Problem” is funny (“funny strange” not “funny haha”) because it was so important at the time, with a high public as well as professional profile, but is largely forgotten about today. There is not a chapter in our high school biology, earth science, or history books on the coral reef problem. It is also interesting to me that everyone at the time had one or two things way wrong, with these missing pieces worked out only in the middle and latter parts of the 20th century, yet when those issues were solved there was not any sort of nostalgic redux of the original debates.

Until now, of course. David Dobbs (quoted above) wrote the book “Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of CoralMarine Life Books)” chronicling this story. Since this is a big interest of mine, I’ve devoured the book, written about it here, and David and I even did a Bloggingheads.tv conversation about it.

Here’s the Bloggingheads TV Interview with David and me:

And now, David is providing on his blog a series of stand-alone excerpts from the book for your enjoyment. The first one is here. Personally, I think you should buy the book to support David and his excellent science journalism, but while you are waiting for it to arrive in the mail or be downloaded to your kindle, you can whet your appetite.

Comments

  1. #1 harrync
    June 2, 2011

    I think the classic phrasing is “funny peculiar, not funny haha” (as opposed to “funny strange”.) But I can’t remember where it’s from – Beany and Cecil? Rocky and Bullwinkle? Soupy Sales? Anyone out there remember?

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    June 2, 2011

    Well, it’s from my friend Stephanie and she said “Funny strange or funny haha”.. If anyone else has used it, they may have changed it …

  3. #3 Rezheen
    DpFKrrHyGCtqe
    September 30, 2012

    Innnterrresting! How big are they? Mr Darwin must have had high testosterone to have such a redcnieg hairline at 31! I guess he was also adventurous which reveals the same origins- but I’m adventurous ??? Yoiks!

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