Excerpted from Reef Madness by David Dobbs. Copyright © 2005 by David Dobbs. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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.