Below is the first in a series of self-standing excerpts from my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral (Pantheon, 2005), that, in an experimental act of re-publishing, I will run a dozen or so of these over the next several weeks, partially serializing the book. Each post will stand on its own as an intriguing story within a larger context: the struggle of some of history’s smartest and most determined people, including Charles Darwin, to figure out how to do science — to look at the world accurately, generate ideas about how it works, and test those ideas in a way that gives you reliable answers. This was usually (certainly not always, as we’ll see) a polite debate. Yet it was also, always, a high-stakes war about what science is, and that war continues today. In this case it revolved around two of the 19th century’s hottest scientific questions: the origin of species, and the origin of coral reefs.
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.
And in one of the era’s many oddities and inversions, the coral reef debate found Darwin, who had won the species debate by amassing mounds of evidence, holding the weaker evidentiary hand — even as he faced the son of Louis Agassiz, the renowned creationist he had soundly and humiliatingly deposed, and one of the most brilliant and confounding scientists of his time. If you’re one of the few who know how this story ends — that is, whose coral theory proved correct — please refrain from spoilers. You wouldn’t want to ruin things for those who read all the way through.
We start with Louis.
from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral
© David Dobbs, all rights reserved
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 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.
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