Wrangling about Reefs

In a nineteenth-century controversy about how coral reefs form, signs of the origin of "Big Science"

Tucked away at the periphery of the Harvard Museum of Natural History (HMNH) on Oxford Street in Cambridge, off to the side of the historic Hall of Mammals, lies a small room that is used mostly as a temporary classroom for the throngs of elementary-school students who invade the public galleries each weekday. On many weekends, the room doubles as a rental space that is used to accommodate children’s birthday parties and other cacophonous events. For the occasional wedding or bar mitzvah, the room even serves as a dance hall. Few students, partygoers, or dancers notice the large and intricate three-dimensional model of Funafuti Atoll, a beautiful island chain in the west-central Pacific, which has been pushed off to the side to make room for tables and chairs, not to mention birthday cakes, balloons, wrapped water guns, CDs, and video games. And no one gets to see a second model, depicting the island of Bora-Bora in French Polynesia, which was cut into several large pieces many years ago to make additional room and is now stored on its side against one wall and hidden behind an imposing divider.

David Dobbs, Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral (Pantheon, $25).

It wasn’t always this way. The “coral reef room,” as it is still known to many curators, staff members, and students, was once among the most important and prized exhibits of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), the largest of HMNH’s three parent museums. It depicted in graphic and exacting detail the objects of an intense intellectual debate that began in the mid 1800s and ultimately pitted many of the leading biologists and intellectuals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries against one another: Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, James Dwight Dana, Louis Agassiz (the founder of the MCZ in 1859), and his son, Alexander (who ultimately became the museum’s second director after his father’s death in 1873). And just as the museum’s two coral reef exhibits have largely been set aside from public view, so, too, has the coral reef debate—or the coral reef “problem,” as it was known in the nineteenth century—largely disappeared from contemporary understanding and appreciation of the history of evolutionary biology and geology. This is a shame, because the coral reef debate offers many valuable lessons regarding the nature of scientific inquiry and method, not to mention a series of colorful anecdotes and stories with a remarkable cast of characters that is hard to match. It is the history and significance of this debate that form the subject of David Dobbs’s splendid new book.

Dobbs, who is neither a practicing scientist nor a science historian, is instead a science writer who does a very effective and insightful job at conveying the spirit and subtleties of both disciplines. His two earlier books, The Northern Forest, which examines the political debate about harvesting and development of New England forests, and The Great Gulf, which chronicles the controversy over management and harvesting of New England marine fisheries, have received numerous awards for science journalism. Both books depict the pursuit of scientific objectives as deeply enmeshed in the over-arching societal and political contexts of their time.

Similarly, Dobbs presents the coral reef debate—correctly—as deeply embedded in an intricate milieu that ranges from the transformation of nineteenth-century conceptions of the nature of empirical research and of scientific “proof” to the complex personalities and personal tragedies of the main partisans, as well as their interpersonal relationships and professional interactions. Indeed, the first half or more of the book deals principally with the early life experiences and intellectual maturation—including both heroic successes and dismal failures—of both Louis and Alexander Agassiz and Charles Darwin. This prolonged introduction very effectively sets the stage for the subsequent recounting of the coral reef debate.

Although there had been much discussion and theorizing on the coral reef problem earlier, the focused debate arguably began in earnest with Darwin’s outline of his theory in the Voyage of the “Beagle” (1839), and subsequent fuller elaboration in his Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (1842). Darwin, arguing from what his opponents later regarded as both insufficient knowledge and inadequate observation of coral reefs, offered the dramatic suggestion that the geometry and other unique physical characteristics of most reef formations could be explained by coral growth following the progressive subsidence of oceanic islands. Numerous scientists subsequently disputed Darwin’s theory, and for various reasons, but ultimately it was Alexander Agassiz, who by then was director of the MCZ, who reluctantly assumed the mantle as Darwin’s chief opponent. (Alexander gradually developed his own theory, which attributed the formation of at least some reefs to elevation of marine substrates and their subsequent erosion.) Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to regard the last 20 years of Alexander’s professional life—beginning with his 1891 research cruise to the Galápagos Islands and ending in 1910 with his sudden and untimely death on board a passenger steamship bound for New York from England—as largely consumed with gathering data from coral reefs throughout the globe that would reveal the fatal flaws in Darwin’s theory.

In retrospect, we now realize that attempts by Alexander Agassiz—or, indeed, any of his contemporaries—to adequately resolve the coral reef problem were hopeless. Extraction of deep underground rock samples, which would provide definitive evidence either in favor or against, needed the development of more robust drilling technology, decades after Alexander’s death. Indeed, it was not until the 1950s that deep drilling by the U.S. Navy on Eniwetok Atoll, in advance of nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands, yielded the hard, unequivocal evidence that (finally) proved Darwin correct.


Dobbs has written much more than a book about coral reefs and their formation. Among other things, his work gave me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of Alexander Agassiz, whose reluctance to take on Darwin is especially poignant. Compared to his extroverted father, Louis, whose dynamic and larger-than-life persona dominated intellectual life in the United States (and beyond) in the mid nineteenth century, Alexander appears unassuming, even dull. He was no publicity hound, ever seeking center stage. Yet it was Alexander, and not Louis, who while only in his thirties began to amass a vast personal fortune (by investing in and managing a tremendously productive copper mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) that would enable him to embark on the most comprehensive and far-reaching expeditions to investigate coral reefs that the world had ever seen. This was Big Science, nineteenth-century style.

More telling, perhaps, Alexander had as a young man witnessed the crushing intellectual defeat of his father, who had stubbornly refused to accept Darwin’s 1859 theory of evolution by natural selection and instead had steadfastly championed his own brand of “special creation” until his death in 1873 [see “A Wrangle over Darwin,” September-October 1998, page 47]. In many respects, the last thing that Alexander wanted to do was take on the man who was by then among the world’s scientific elite and who had already notched one Agassiz on his belt. Yet the coral reef problem also was enticing. Should Alexander’s hypothesis prove correct, it would, after all, offer a means of disproving Darwin and thus of extracting some modicum of revenge for his father’s earlier defeat. Moreover, the opportunities and justification for virtually unlimited fieldwork in the far-flung corners of the globe would provide—even if only unconsciously—a means of coping with the deep psychological depression that Alexander suffered early in his career, following the nearly simultaneous death of both his wife and father in December 1873, among other personal losses.

The coral reef debate comprises a seemingly endless series of both marvelous coincidences and painful ironies. Thus, the Museum of Comparative Zoology was founded by the “creationist” Louis Agassiz in the same year as the initial publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Consequently, even at the time of the museum’s birth, Louis’s scientific world was beginning to crumble. He would subsequently launch his own far-reaching expeditions, such as the famous Thayer expedition to the Brazilian Amazon (1865–66), and amass enormous collections in a futile attempt to refute Darwin’s theory of evolution. Most of these collections still remain at 26 Oxford Street, and ultimately “The Agassiz Museum” would gain renown as a preeminent center for the study of Darwinian evolution. One final irony associated with Alexander Agassiz emerged after his death: his long-awaited synthesis of the data amassed during his extensive field investigations of coral reefs—data that he felt disproved Darwin’s theory as a general model of coral reef formation—had not yet been published when he died. Moreover, despite Alexander’s stated intention as early as 1902, eight years before his death, to prepare “a connected account of coral reefs based on what I have seen,” no manuscript, no earlier drafts, not even organized notes were ever found. The work remains missing and unfinished to this day.

Dobbs has done an excellent job of weaving together these and other numerous threads into a fabric that is both informative and entertaining. Reef Madness treats a period when our contemporary way of doing science was beginning to emerge from the Victorian age; when “creationists” and “evolutionists” weren’t as easy to pigeonhole as they are today; when a wealthy university museum director would hire a private railcar to convey him and his field party from Montreal to Vancouver at the beginning of a month-long journey from Boston to Fiji; and when one of Germany’s leading scientists could describe one of Harvard’s leading lights as “the most ingenious and energetic racketeer in the entire domain of natural history.” This is fun science.


James Hanken is professor of biology and Alexander Agassiz professor of zoology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, where he also serves as director and curator in herpetology.


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