Introduction to Reef Madness:
Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz,
and the Meaning of Coral
By David Dobbs
In the last half of the nineteenth century, Alexander Agassiz, the smart, quiet son of the brilliant, famously talkative naturalist Louis Agassiz, found himself entangled in an argument over the genesis of coral reefs that grew into one of the most heated and vital debates in science. To enter such a dispute went against a deeply ingrained caution. Despite a difficult childhood, the challenge of emigrating from his native Switzerland to the United States, and staggering personal losses, Alexander had become one of his generation's most respected scientists and, by solving the key engineering problems in a copper mine he partly owned, one of America's richest men. But such was his reserve that many colleagues had no idea he was rich, while few business acquaintances knew he spent most of his time studying starfish and coral reefs.
His modest course was very unlike the highly public path his father had taken. Louis Agassiz, a lecturer of fantastic eloquence, stunning memory, and beguiling charm, had won immense popular fame with his spellbinding account, given in countless talks, books, and articles, of how zoology's wonders reflected a divine plan. (A species, said Louis, was "a thought of God.") He paid a high price for this renown, however, when in 1859 Charles Darwin's Origin of Species displaced Louis’s creationist explanation of species. Louis's fierce resistance to Darwin's evolution theory cost him his scientific credibility, and his fall was painful to watch. Alexander tried to avoid scientific debate and any sort of spotlight ever after.
Yet Alexander, who loved the ocean, found the question of coral reefs irresistible. How did these huge, beautiful forms, composed of the skeletons of tiny animals that could survive only in shallow water, come to rise on foundations that emerged from the Pacific's greatest depths? Did these creatures somehow build these foundations? It seemed unlikely. Yet if not, how did so many of these platforms – thousands of them reaching just shy of the surface – come to be? Though this mystery drew the attention of great scientists for decades, a satisfactory answer proved elusive. Today, of course, the main argument about coral reefs is how to save them, and only scientists might recall the debate that once raged about their origin. But in the 1800s, particularly from the 1870s onward, the "coral reef problem," as it was known, was one of the most difficult and contentious in science. Only the 1860s clash over evolution seemed comparable.
One reason the coral reef debate reached such a pitch is that it in fact reprised in many ways the evolutionary debate, engaging many of the same figures and ideas. It played out as an eerie coda to the battle over Darwinism, with strange dissonances, inverted themes, and prominent soloists playing different instruments, their lines of music sometimes unexpectedly reversed or turned upside down, as if Bartók had rearranged an operatic score by Wagner. The coral reef problem did not concern species origin or humankind's descent. But it posed again the evolutionary debate's confounding questions about the importance of evidence, the proper construction of theory, and the reliability of powerful but abstract ideas.
These were not marginal issues. Indeed, their reexamination during the Victorian era allowed and often drove the great advances science made in the nineteenth century (and the twentieth, for that matter) and helped solidify science as a separate discipline. For the five centuries before the Victorian era, what we now call science – the analysis of how nature works – had been known as natural philosophy, and it held strong links to theology; for many, natural philosophy was simply the study of God's natural works. It was only in the 1800s that the word scientist was coined, for it was only then that people began to think of science as an endeavor driven by its own, particularly rigorous set of rules. As science moved inexorably away from the realm of religious philosophy (a break that had started with Copernicus), its rules increasingly stressed empiricism, the reliance on observable dynamics rather than mythic explanations. This growing empiricism stirred a more self-conscious consideration of how scientists should draw conclusions from what they observed.
These changes produced great rewards. Indeed, the story of the advance of Western science — at its best, a search for knowledge that can be communally pursued, readily shared, and rigorously checked with data culled from replicable observation — is largely the story of the development of reliable empirical methods, and many of those methods were developed or greatly refined through the tortuous debates of the nineteenth century. But the era's great changes in method and philosophy meant that its scientists were playing a game the rules of which were constantly being revised.
The coral reef problem involved virtually all of these methodological and philosophical issues and difficulties, and its solution taxed all methods then available, both technical and theoretical. On a technical level, the absence of sonar, deep-drilling equipment, or other means of seeing what lay below the ocean's surface left much of the most relevant evidence (most notably the contours of the ocean bottom and the composition of its underlying strata) out of reach. This elusiveness of definitive evidence forced an intense dispute over how to weigh what evidence could be observed and how much liberty of imagination to allow in the absence of more data.
That these were precisely the questions considered most vital to science is one reason the coral reef problem grew so intractable. The other reason, especially cogent for Alexander Agassiz, was that the coral reef problem involved the legacy of Charles Darwin. Darwin, of course, had not merely unseated Alexander's father from the pinnacle of American science; he was the single most controversial and influential man in nineteenth-century science. And as it happened, the prevailing theory of coral reefs throughout the mid-1800s had been published by Darwin in 1836, only a few months after the twenty-six-year-old Darwin returned from his five-year Beagle voyage, twenty-three years before the Origin of Species, — and a year after Alexander was born.
Like his later theory of evolution, Darwin's theory of coral reefs imaginatively explained an array of forms with a vision of incremental change through time. Unlike his evolution theory, the coral reef theory was published after Darwin had seen only a modest amount of evidence – in this case, a handful of the world's thousands of reef structures. Its explanatory power soon made it the textbook theory, however, and Darwin quickly moved on to a much more exhaustive research of material for his evolutionary thesis. But in the decades after he published his coral reef theory, the sparseness of the observable data supporting it, along with the accrual of significant contradictory evidence, cast it into doubt.
Alex found himself among the doubters. The sweeping nature of Darwin's theory had unsettled him since the early 1850s, when as a very young man he accompanied his father on a Caribbean trip in which they saw reefs that seemed to defy Darwin's theory. Then, in 1876, three years after his father died, Alex learned of new findings on sea bottom formation from the freshly completed Challenger oceanographic circumnavigation. Talking with the scientists who sailed on that trip, the thirty-year-old Alex became convinced that Darwin's coral reef thesis, posed before Darwin had become the cautious and thorough scientist who wrote Origin, conflicted not just with the Challenger's findings but with most of what had been observed about coral reefs in the forty years since Darwin published his thesis. Meanwhile, Darwin's evolutionary theory, particularly its displacement of Louis's creationist vision of species, had made Darwin a hero of the empirical method. Alex felt Darwin's coral reef theory fell short of the very empiricism he'd done so much to promote.
For Alex, of course, the entire question was complicated (to put it mildly) by being connected with the man who had all but destroyed his father. It only made things worse that he liked Darwin. They had met in 1871, when Alex twice visited Darwin as part of a research trip to Europe. Darwin had by then become a gray eminence of fifty-one, while Alex was an up-and-coming scientist of twenty-five. The dispute between Darwin and Alex's father, a dozen years old, had cooled enough that Louis could write his son a friendly letter of introduction to Darwin. Alex and Darwin took to each other immediately. They had much in common. They both liked to work alone, away from society. Because Darwin had an inheritance and Alex his copper money, neither had to teach or publish to live comfortably; they could concentrate on science, and they took great pleasure in doing so. More personally, both came from highly accomplished and ambitious fathers who threw long shadows, and both lost their mothers at tender ages — Darwin at eight, Alex at twelve. Both were sheltered and mentored by adoring and prominent maternal uncles. And in their thirties, both would suffer deeply scarring familial losses. The warmth they discovered in each other was likely amplified for rising amid the larger ideological and political debate that had pitted Darwin against Louis. Alex left England with an affection for Darwin that heightened his admiration for him as a scientist, and for several years afterward they corresponded amiably.
This mutual regard and respect, and Alex's recognition that Darwin was in many ways the founder of the biology that he and his peers now practiced, made the coral reef question even more troublesome for Alex. In a way, the issue caught him between two fathers who happened to be the scientific giants of his age and who embodied the polarities of thought and method that all of science was struggling to reconcile. He recognized that, and it tormented him. Yet if anything this bind made him even more careful, exacting, and thorough. He would spend thirty years and a sizable fortune to build a case against the theory he thought Darwin had published too quickly.
Alexander Agassiz's quest has since been forgotten, buried in time much as the evidence he sought was buried in stone. But the epistemological dilemma he tried to resolve still stands, and Alexander’s attempt – his singular position in one of science's last great epistemological debates — reveals much about both an era’s greatest questions and the timeless difficulty of squaring our personal legacies with the world's mysteries.
It's an oddity of this story that of its three main figures, Alexander, its most central, is in many ways the least exciting and, on the surface anyway, the least endearing. Alexander was introverted and dour and could be quite gruff, an intimidating figure. His father, by contrast, was gleefully charismatic, and Darwin, though less gregarious than Louis, exuded in his letters and published writings a quiet, disarming charm that seemed to magnify his understated genius. Alexander did not possess or even wish for the grandeur of the men whose legacies he tried to untangle. He shared his father's extraordinary powers of memory and work but not his boldness of imagination and character. He could and did work harder than Darwin, and he could grasp as much, but he lacked, perhaps in reaction to his father's excesses of imagination, Darwin's conceptual daring.
It is precisely his lack of stature, and of the imaginative or inspirational fire we call genius, that makes Alexander Agassiz's attempt to solve the coral reef problem so compelling. We see here someone distinctly mortal, smarter and more determined than most of us but still on the same plane, striving to see the world in a way he can trust. Like many of us, he must sometimes squint through the fog left by his ancestors. The light shifts and dims. At critical points he must find his way not by the serene conviction of genius but by tenuous instinct and a few tested maxims. And even at his most certain, when the light is most clear, he's not quite sure where he will end up.