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Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

Written by David DobbsAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Dobbs

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On Sale: February 25, 2009
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-49007-0
Published by : Pantheon Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

The name Agassiz, from the southern, Francophone area of what is now Switzerland, means magpie—a bird, of course, but also a person, as Webster’s puts it, “who chatters noisily.” If this did not hang well on the reserved man that Alexander Agassiz would become, it fit his father snug. Louis Agassiz talked as voluminously and engagingly as anyone ever has about science, or for that matter about almost anything. He could mesmerize a room full of scientists, an auditorium flush with factory workers, or a parlor pack of literati, including his salon companions Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the sharpest talkers in a smart and garrulous town. He was one of those brilliant, babblative sorts whose immense skill in their main work is nearly eclipsed by their gift for talk.

The orative urge can serve teachers well, scientists poorly. Yet if it distracted him from work, Louis’s eloquence accounted for much of his renown, throwing a glow around his theories and accomplishments that made them appear more illuminating than they were. His reputation grew much larger than justified by a sober look at his work. In Louis’s American prime, from the mid-1840s to the late 1850s, the clerisy considered him the country’s supreme scientist and one of its greatest intellectual talents. The public granted him that status even longer, well beyond his death in 1873. When he passed away, the major newspapers carried the news in huge type on their front pages, as if a president had died, and the nation’s vice president attended the funeral. The country’s top literary figures wrote aggrieved elegies; Oliver Wendell Holmes composed one for the Atlantic Monthly, a sort of house organ for Louis, adding to the several Agassiz odes he had already printed there. Even today, though time and Louis’s lost battle against Darwin have diminished his reputation, he stands as one of the giants of American science. Of scientists (rather than inventors) working in America, only Albert Einstein ever gained a similar combination of professional respect and public adoration. Yet Louis Agassiz’s work never remotely approached the originality, importance, or practical implications of Einstein’s. With one exception, his ice age theory, the main theories he promoted fell obsolete, at least among scientists, even before he died. Yet he still stands as a scientific icon. His fame comes in part from his establishment of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, a highly productive institution that trained many good scientists and, through example, competition, and direct mentorship, helped spur the development of other leading institutions. This and his ice age work would rightly place Louis Agassiz among the significant figures of American science. But those accomplishments don’t explain his exalted status.

How did a man who made few enduring original scientific contributions become a lasting symbol of American science? As his early biographer, Jules Marcou, a French protégé who followed Louis across the Atlantic to work with him for several decades at Harvard, noted, “He was one of those very few men whose works are not sufficient to make him entirely known; one must meet him face to face. . . . Agassiz himself was more interesting than his works.” This can read as both praise and damnation, of course, reflecting the ambivalent tone of Marcou’s biography. (Marcou’s book, published after Louis had died, would enrage Alexander, who tried to have its more critical and personal passages suppressed.) But Marcou knew Louis well. He recognized in him that intangible quality that enables some people to move others to adoration, action, and a permanent change in thinking. Louis Agassiz thrillingly personified a Romantic ideal that combined deep learnedness with avid curiosity—and flattered his followers by emphasizing the latter. Though his own best work rested as much on reading as on observation, he urged his students to “study nature, not books.” It was a delicious invitation to a young country in a Romantic era. With his childlike enthusiasm, acute eye, mongoose-quick mind, and charming mispronunciations, Louis sold beautifully the primacy of clear-eyed observation over bookish learning. To an audience eager to claim its own intellectual legitimacy he insisted that vigorous, hands-on study of nature would not only strengthen mind, body, and soul but yield a knowledge greater than any library could hold. It was as if Louis’s mentor Georges Cuvier, the learned taxonomist and brilliant lecturer of early-nineteenth-century European science, had fused with Walt Whitman and Teddy Roosevelt.

Was ever another like him? His son, Alex, must have asked himself that, as virtually everyone who knew Louis did at some point. The obvious answer was no. He threw a hell of a shadow.

2

When he was twenty-one, Louis Agassiz wrote his father, “I wish it may be said of Louis Agassiz that he was the first naturalist of his time. . . . I feel within myself the strength of a whole generation to work toward this end, and I will reach it if the means are not wanting.”

Even for someone just past twenty, this ambition, particularly its sense of possessing the power of an entire age, is stunning in its confidence, scope, and focus. Yet young Louis had good reason to feel so strong. He was an accomplished, determined, and stupendously energetic prodigy. The son of a pastor, raised near the Jura Mountains in southwestern Switzerland (then a loose collection of cantons under Prussian rule), Louis showed from his earliest days a precocious brilliance. As a boy he spent countless hours hunting, fishing, and gathering bugs, small mammals, and fish, keeping many of the survivors in cages and aquaria at home. (Magpie also denotes an obsessive collector.) When he was fifteen, he composed a ten-year plan for himself requiring rigorous collecting and dissection of specimens; wide reading in science, literature, and philosophy; and eventual study at leading natural history institutions in Germany and then Paris before launching his career as a naturalist at twenty-five. He would follow this program with remarkable faith. During his adolescence (which he spent mainly at a boarding school twenty miles from home), he not only carefully classified his finds but studied the logic behind the different classification systems then in use—a concern, as we’ll see, central to nineteenth-century zoological studies in general and to Louis’s career in particular.

He was prodigious in talk as well. At boarding school he attracted a circle of fellow bright gabbers, and by the time he entered university at fifteen, he hosted a student salon, known as the Little Academy, which convened in his rooms several evenings a week to discuss science, art, and culture. “Agassiz knew everything,” recalled a fellow Little Academician. “He was always ready to demonstrate and speak on any subject. If it was a subject he was not familiar with, he would study and rapidly master it; and on the next occasion he would speak in such brilliant terms and with such profound erudition that he was a constant sourse of wonder to us.”

When his salon mates went home, Louis would resume studying, then go to bed late. The next day he would rise at six, spend most of the morning working in the lab, fence (at which he excelled), eat lunch, take a walk, study until dinner, and then reconvene his Little Academy and talk till the wee hours. He seemed never to tire (Alex and his friends would later call him “the steam engine”), and he appeared to retain all he heard, read, or saw. Once, asked to identify a fish, he recalled by drawer number a similar specimen he had seen more than a decade before at a natural history museum in Vienna. A subsequent letter verified both the identification and the drawer number.

He possessed a brash confidence that he could generally back up. According to one story (of many he would spawn), Louis, affronted by some perceived slight given his Swiss fencing team by a German team while he was studying in Munich, challenged the German team to a match in which he alone would take on the entire squad, one at a time. The Germans laughingly agreed. Louis dispatched first their best fencer and then their next-best three before the Germans threw in the towel.

He carried this competitive exuberance to friendships. He and his close friend Alexander Braun (who would become both a prominent botanist and Louis’s brother-in-law) once became so caught up in a conversation about fencing that they took up rapiers and sparred without thinking to put on their masks. They did not stop until Louis, the quicker of the two, had slashed his friend’s face.

He pursued education and career with similar zeal. His self-designed program ran into trouble early in his college years, when his parents made it clear they expected him to be a physician. He solved the problem (and retained his family’s financial support) by executing both his own and his parents’ plans, earning a medical degree even as he followed his own agenda by studying natural history in Lausanne, 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 center of natural history study, outranking both London and Munich. At its heart was the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle, the largest and most prestigious institution in natural science, where Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Georges Cuvier headed an illustrious and rivalrous staff. Their primary preoccupation was identifying, dissecting, and cataloging the many biological specimens of living and extinct species being sent to the museum from around the world. This discipline of classification, also known as taxonomy, had been essentially founded a century before, when the Swede Carolus Linnaeus roughed out the classification hierarchy of kingdom, class, order, genus, and species (phylum and family were added later) that has served so well and flexibly ever since. Linnaeus also invented binomial nomenclature, by which each species is known by its genus and species names (Homo sapiens, Falco peregrinus).

Linnaeus’s system furnished a treelike organization in which to place new species. But it did not settle how many branches that tree should have at each level or how to decide on which branch a new species should reside. Those questions remained open, and the many scientific expeditions sent around the globe in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had quickened the debate on how to answer them. Explorers were discovering species at an unprecedented rate, and the emerging science of paleontology was complicating things further. You had to figure out where to place not just an iguana but an iguanodon, a pterodactyl, and a platypus. You had to define categories broad enough to accommodate these species but narrow enough to be meaningful. What physical differences should divide categories at the most basic levels? How heavily should structural considerations weigh versus physiological? Was a crab, for instance, more like a spider or a starfish? A starfish more like a crab or an anemone?

Underlying these questions, and giving taxonomy the air of grand endeavor, was the sense that the discipline was not merely distinguishing among creatures but limning the order of God’s work. Taxonomy rose mainly from the practical need to identify all the species being discovered. But its emergence offered a great theological and political convenience, for it came at a time when those in Western science—funded and conducted largely by institutions and people who were either pious or under pressure to seem so—were glad to find a way to reinforce Judeo-Christian tenets. Discoveries about the earth’s age, like Copernicus’s and Galileo’s work two centuries before regarding our place in the universe, had forced a looser, more metaphorical interpretation of the Bible’s account of creation, making science once again seem a doubter of religion. Geological findings made it clear the earth was older than the Bible said it was, and the fossil record seemed to contradict the story of Noah’s flood. Although these discoveries didn’t turn Christian dogma upside down the way Copernicus’s work did and Darwin’s would, they forced a reworking of the biblical version of creation, a process that discomfited many and threatened some.

By placing all life into a systematic structure, however, taxonomy could glorify God by showing the order of his work. The binomial system did this beautifully, for its bifurcating-branch system graphically brought all life-forms back to the same tree trunk. This organizational scheme need not be theistic, of course; the same taxonomic system later readily described a nature created by evolution. But the tree of life described by Linnaean taxonomy could be easily offered and accepted as the work of God. Who or what else could create an array so marvelously complex and interconnected? Taxonomy allowed naturalists to elaborate rather than undermine the notion of a world made by a single, omnipotent Creator.

All this, along with the many new species being discovered, made taxonomy one of the most exciting disciplines in all of science. And Paris was the center of the taxonomic world, with Cuvier, Lamarck, Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and other taxonomists competing ferociously to parse God’s order. Cuvier had claimed the greatest renown among them through a combination of strong science, shrewd politicking, and bold showmanship. He had fundamentally transformed taxonomy by rejecting the notion of an animal kingdom that merely ranged from the simple to the complex and dividing it instead into four broad categories that he called “embranchments”: vertebrates, radiates, mollusks, and articulates. These same categories, which today we know as phyla, have (with about thirty additional phyla discovered since Cuvier’s time) headed the animal-kingdom framework ever since. This innovation created a far more logical and useful classification of the animal kingdom. In addition, Cuvier’s 1812 Recherches sur les ossements fossiles des quadrupèdes pioneered the science of paleontology and the classification of fossils. Cuvier even claimed to have developed a system, which he called the “correlation of parts,” for extrapolating an animal’s entire anatomy from almost any bone. Presented with just one bone from a newly discovered skeleton, he would wow audiences by predicting the structure of the remainder. He once did this with a fossilized opossum embedded in rock, successfully predicting, from what he could see of a tiny portion of the skeleton, that it would be an animal of the marsupial family.

Early in his career, Cuvier invented the term “balance of nature,” a coinage reflecting his belief that every piece of nature had a traceable link to every other. “Nature makes no jumps,” he wrote in one of his early papers, a 1790 Journal d’Histoire naturelle article about wood lice. He was essentially quoting Aristotle, but the idea served his purposes well. A wood louse was related to a snail and a whale, and if you worked long enough, you could trace the links.
David Dobbs|Author Q&A

About David Dobbs

David Dobbs - Reef Madness
David Dobbs was born in Texas and attended Oberlin College. His articles have appeared in Audubon, Popular Science, and Outside. His previous books include The Northern Forest (with Richard Ober) and The Great Gulf. He lives in Vermont.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with David Dobbs
What’s this book about?
Reef Madness describes a 35-year argument that took place in the late 1800s between Charles Darwin and a younger scientist, Alexander Agassiz, over how coral reefs formed. That’s the issue at its simplest — a scientific conflict. But it’s also a story of intense personal and philosophical conflicts: of a son trying to deal with the huge legacy of a very famous, brilliant, but maddeningly flawed father, and a wider dispute among scientists about the rules of science. It was both a blood feud and a philosophical debate of the most elemental kind. And though it was forgotten for most of the last 50 years, it was at the time one of the hottest controversies in science.

Let’s start with the personal aspect. Your main character, Alexander Agassiz, had a rather tortured relationship with his father, who was the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz. How did that affect Alex and his attempt to solve the coral reef question?
The story of the coral reef debate takes place within a weird triangle defined by Alexander Agassiz, his father Louis, and Charles Darwin. Louis Agassiz was, before Darwin, perhaps the most famous scientist of the 19th century. He had immigrated from Europe to America in the 1840s, and through brilliant lecturing and apparently irresistible charm, he seduced first Harvard, Cambridge, and Boston and then the whole country. He was famous the way Ben Franklin had been before him and the way Alfred Einstein was afterwards — not just known, but adored. Thousands of people came to hear his lectures.
At the center of Louis’s fame was his vision of nature as God’s creation. He had this wonderful staple lecture, on which he lived grandly for three decades, about “the Plan of Creation.” “A species,” he said, “is a thought of God.” This wasn’t unusual — most people thought the same. But Louis described God’s plan with peerless elegance and appeal. On it he rose to the pinnacle of American science, running a school at Harvard and ruling over many of the country’s scientific organizations. He was the most powerful and influential man in American science.
All this crumbled when Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin, of course, argued that species were not thoughts of God but products of chance and opportunism. This idea threatened Louis’s entire scheme and reputation, and he fought it tooth and nail for a decade. But he lost. By 1870, his reputation as a scientist was largely ruined.
Darwin won because he had done for biology what Copernicus had done for astronomy and Charles Lyell for geology: he replaced mystical, religious explanations with theories based on observable evidence. His victory was one of the last vital victories of empiricism as it became the standard of science.
But if it was a triumph for Darwin and for science, it was a disaster for Louis Agassiz. He did not lose gracefully, and for Alex, just coming into his prime during these years of the evolution debate, his father’s fall was hard to watch. It taught him many painful lessons. He would conduct his life in a way that seemed calculated to avoid his father’s mistakes. He was quiet instead of brash. He avoided the spotlight and conflict. And he steered clear of any theory that seemed speculative or fanciful or not fully based on observation. He became, like Darwin, a ferociously dedicated empiricist.
All this would come into play in very strange ways when he later decided to argue with Darwin about coral reefs.

There have been piles of books about Charles Darwin. But the Darwin in your book is a bit different than the one we’re used to meeting. How so?
In this book we see Darwin at two different times. One is quite young, before he’s really found his feet. And this young Darwin is a completely different animal than the gray-bearded, rather sickly Darwin of the popular imagination and most histories. It isn’t new to Darwin scholars, but it can be astonishing — and rather delightful — for the rest of us to discover that the young Darwin was a bright but aimless young man. He hardly studied his first two years at Cambridge, for instance; he was far more interested in hunting and in playing cards and drinking. His father was terrified he’d end up a ne’er-do-well sporting type. He almost didn’t take the job on the Beagle; when his father objected, he let the thing drop, and then hurried off to hunt, for it was the first day of partridge season, and almost nothing could make him miss that. He only took the Beagle job when his uncle whacked him upside the head and convinced his father it was a good idea.
Then on the Beagle, he became a very bold thinker and naturalist, and most especially a very imaginative geologist. He took five times as many notes on rocks as on animals; he considered himself a geologist above all. And he was a very bold one. It was then that he came up with his coral theory.
That’s one Darwin we meet here — the aimless sport who transforms into the adventurous and very bold theorist — neither of them much like the cautious and dyspeptic scholar of later years.
The other Darwin we meet is the older one with whom Alex starts his long debate. This was a very gracious man, which is completely consistent with the typical historical view of Darwin. He was a warm-hearted man, generous, and wrote wonderful encouraging warm letters to any fellow scientist whether they were with him or against him. This was the tone of his relation with Alex. The two liked each other. But Darwin’s graciousness, while quite genuine, was also the soft covering over a relentless effort to advance his own theories and cause. He had a unique way of charming, pushing, cajoling, and thoughtfully leading his colleagues in his direction. Alexander’s relationship with this Darwin was fascinating. He had to deal with two of the century’s most fascinating geniuses — each quite maddening in his own way — and somehow still find answers his own way.

You say the coral reef question involved central questions of science. What were those? Or to put it another way, what exactly is the meaning of coral.
Well, the meaning of coral keeps changing in a way that reflects the ways in which we view the world. Today, coral seems a sort of symbol of the earth’s decline, since global warming and other things are killing it all around the globe.
But when Captain James Cook first brought word of coral reefs to Europe in the late 1700s, the reefs and isles were seen as a sort of generative miracle, a symbol of God’s creative power. By the mid-1800s, as science rejected such religious explanations, they were viewed as one of science’s most intriguing and difficult problems.
And a real puzzler it was. By then, scientists knew that the tropical reefs were composed of the skeletons of billions of tiny animals. They also knew these animals could live only in shallow water. Yet these shallow-water reefs sat on plateaus that fell steeply to some of the Pacific’s greatest depths. How did they get there? Did they somehow build the platforms? Or, if they inhabited pre-existing platforms, how did the platforms get there?
That was the big puzzle facing Darwin and Agassiz. The different ways they tried to answer it represented two strikingly different visions of how to do science. Both men wanted to move science away from religious or mystical explanations to more empirical methods. But they differed profoundly on what empiricism was. Darwin’s empiricism allowed more imagination and conjecture; Agassiz thought you had to stick very close to what you could observe and directly prove. Darwin’s method was arguably more powerful, but it was also far more risky and took more liberties. Alexander, along with other critics, thought it took too many with coral reefs, straying into unprovable realms — another pretty story, only naturalistic rather than mystical. Alex’s method, more faithful to the new principles of empiricism that had liberated science from religion, stuck more closely to observed fact.
It was quite unclear which method was more accurate and reliable, quite unclear who was right about coral reefs. So when these two argued about the meaning of coral reefs — and a lot of people were arguing alongside them, for this was a question that divided the scientific world — they were really debating how to do science. How strictly do you adhere to the facts? How much imagination do you allow in the absence of absolute proof? In a science pledged to support by observation, can we believe an explanation that actually contradicts most observed evidence?
These are questions that still haunt scientists today. And the coral reef question was one of the seminal early tests of these questions.
What were their two theories?
Darwin formed his theory while still a very young man, during his Beagle voyage. He published it almost as soon as he returned, and it was such a great success it paved his way into Britain’s scientific establishment.
At that point, it was thought reefs and islands formed on dead volcanoes that had risen to the surface. Darwin had a different idea. While on the west coast of South America, he experienced one of that continent’s biggest earthquakes and became obsessed with rising and falling masses of land. So when he looked at the Pacific on the map, he thought of it as a huge mass of land that was sinking. And if it was sinking, how did the reefs get there? Well, he decided, they must be growing on the banks around sinking islands, growing outward and upward to stay at the surface, forming ever thickening, widening circles even as their bases sank beneath them. It was a brilliant hypothesis, for it seemed to explain every type of reef. It was in many ways like the evolution theory that he would publish 20 years later: It explained a variety of forms as a function of incremental change. And it was brilliantly imaginative.
The theory had two unfortunate problems. One was that the main evidence that might support it — the thickness of reef that Darwin said would accumulate as the ages went by — was buried beneath the sea. No technology of the time could get at it.
The other problem was that most of the evidence that people could get at contradicted Darwin’s theory. The substrate of most of the islands, for instance, seemed to be marine limestone that had been lifted up into place. And in general there seemed more evidence of uplift than subsidence.
Alex Agassiz thought Darwin’s idea much too neat. He thought that reef platforms were created by a variety of factors that combined in different ways at different sites — some uplift here, some accumulation of sediment there, some erosion, occasionally some subsidence. It was a more multifaceted theory. It wasn’t as lovely; but it seemed more consistent with how nature usually worked.

You say this was a big dispute at the time. Why was it so controversial?
Mainly because Darwin was involved. Alex came to the question in the 1870s, 40 years after Darwin had published his theory and 15 years after the great row over Darwin’s evolution theory. By then, Darwin was an elder statesman of science. He was also a very gracious and kind man, and he and Alex, who met in the early 1870s, liked each other a lot. They corresponded cordially on the issue for a few years, and it actually seemed possible that had Darwin lived, they might have forged an answer together. But Darwin died in 1882, 6 years after Alex started working on the problem, and soon after, when Darwin was safely dead, an old enemy of his, a rather reactionary figure named the Duke of Argyll, published an article accusing Darwin’s supporters of squelching Agassiz’s and other alternative coral reef theories in a “conspiracy of silence.”
It was an outrageous and beautifully argued accusation, a masterpiece of Victorian rhetoric, and it had the desired effect. Darwin’s defenders, led by the eloquent Thomas Huxley, immediately counterattacked. A long argument followed, fought in lectures and nasty letters in scientific journals. It was one of the most amusing and flashy public rows since the evolution days 25 years before. In a few short months, the origin of coral reefs moved from being an innocent geological problem to one of science’s most controversial topics.

Was Alexander Agassiz comfortable with this sort of debate?
He hated it. He loathed controversy and public attention. He’d seen what all that did for his father and wanted no part of it. Yet he found himself right in the midst of it. He was like a man who, seeing his father die in war, swears never to fight, only to later find he has volunteered. He couldn’t resist the issue. It was like it owned him.

He spent a lot of time and money pursuing this. As it happened, he was quite rich. Did that make his work easier?
It did. He had made his fortune independent of his scientific work, but it let him pursue it with unusual freedom. In this 1860s, he invested in and then for a time managed a Michigan copper mine that became the world’s biggest supplier of copper. His investment was returned well over 100 times, making him extravagantly rich. It was this money that allowed him to travel the globe investigating coral reefs.

So he was lucky in money, but he had spectacularly bad family luck. How did that affect him?
He had three horrific pieces of family luck. First, when he was ten, and his family was still living in Switzerland, his parents split up, and his father went to America.
Two years later, his mother came down with TB. She suffered over a long winter, slowly dying. He was quite crushed.
Finally, when Alex was a young man and happily married, his father and his wife died within ten days of one another. His wife died because she became ill tending Louis; it was as Louis had pulled her into the grave after her. Alex was never the same. His best friend, Theo Lyman, said a light went out in his eyes. For the first three years in particular he was a hopeless wreck. It was only when he took up the coral reef problem, in 1876, that he felt some passion again.

And this passion eventually became an obsession?
It did. He spent thirty years and much of his fortune traveling the globe to collect evidence to prove his case. He visited every major coral reef formation on the planet, in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, checking out every single island group and doing sounds, samples, and other observations. He was determined to bury Darwin’s argument with the foundation of science — evidence.

So who was right?
I would love to tell you who was right. But it’s one of those answers that means more if you work for it a bit. That’s why I put it near the end of the book.
But I will tell you one of the many strange things about the story’s denouement: It didn’t come until the 1950s, long after both men were dead. (Darwin died in 1882, Alexander Agassiz in 1910.) Alex collected and observed and got a pile of evidence, but he ended his work knowing he hadn’t seen the only evidence that would absolutely prove his case, which was deep drillings through the reefs to see what lay beneath. If drillings showed the reefs to be vastly thick, that would indicate that they had been sinking all those years, thickening as they did so, and prove Darwin right. If they were relatively thin veneers over lava or limestone, it would prove Agassiz right.
But there was no chance to do the needed borings until after WWII. The drills of Agassiz’s time couldn’t go deep enough, and from the 1930s on, the Japanese wouldn’t allow American or European ships to work the Pacific. The debate simmered along among geologists all this time. It wasn’t until 1951, when the Navy did some deep drilling in an atoll in the Marshall Islands before blowing it up with an H-bomb, that anyone drilled deep enough to answer the questions once and for all. But by the time it came, Alex was long dead.


Praise

Praise

“Brilliantly written, sometimes almost unbearably poignant, Reef Madness provides an enthralling picture of three grand scientific minds: the stormy relationship of Louis and Alexander Agassiz and their fateful enmeshment with Charles Darwin. The coral reef story becomes a microcosm of the conflicts—between idealism and empiricism, God and evolution—which were to split science and culture in the nineteenth century and which still split them today.”
—Oliver Sacks, author of Uncle Tungsten
 
Reef Madness eloquently demonstrates the importance of ideas. David Dobbs gives life to a debate that should simply have given insights into our past. But, surprisingly, the debate has remained very much with us, giving this book enormous contemporary relevance.”
—Mark Kurlansky, author of Salt: A World History
 
“Engaging, tantalizing, and well written. The best kind of intellectual history. Like Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club, Reef Madness brilliantly sets a small group of passionate thinkers into a living context, deftly illuminating the people, their place and time, and their vigorous, world changing arguments.”
—Andrea Barrett, author of The Voyage of the Narwhal
 
“A wonderful book! A masterful and thrilling account of the origin of coral reefs and the men who debated those origins. David Dobbs tells the complex tale of how brilliant scientists, such as Alexander Agassiz and Charles Darwin, often bitterly disagree in the search for truth and the remarkable power of scientific inquiry as it unfolds over time.”
—Howard Markel, author of When Germs Travel

  • Reef Madness by David Dobbs
  • January 04, 2005
  • Nature - Marine Life
  • Pantheon
  • $25.00
  • 9780375421617

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