Reef Madness

I recently picked up Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral – a book written by my friend, David Dobbs.

Reef Madness is biography, depiction of natural scientific fieldwork, and history of science all in one engaging book. Dobbs describes the rise of modern natural science, a half-century of struggles between inductive and deductive theorizing, and persistent tensions between science as the ongoing discovery of new facts and the tenacious hold of theories that no longer fit the evidence.

Louis Agassiz was a natural scientist of the public. He showed early promise as a taxonomist (the primary occupation of naturalists at the time) and, quite early in his career he developed the now widely accepted theory that periodic ice ages produced the gaps scientists observed in the fossil record and reshaped the topography of the land. In those formative years, Agassiz’s glacial theory effectively disproved some of young Darwin’s work – Darwin’s first foray into the world of theory-building. Where Darwin had argued that features of the natural world were the result of “uplift” – the changing elevation of land, he was trumped by the goodness of fit between glacial theory and the existing evidence. Darwin was humbled by the first taste of failure. Meanwhile, the success of his initial endeavors and a flair for the dramatic catapulted Agassiz into life as a public intellectual, scholar and lecturer of global renown. He eventually made his way to Harvard where he established the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and spent significant time on the lecture circuit delighting audiences with tales of the intelligent and intricate design of God’s natural order. Agassiz had a democratic conception of the scientific enterprise and he exhorted his audience to get out into the field to investigate creation for themselves – no university education required.

Agassiz had a son, Alexander, who also became a natural scientist. Although they shared a love of science, they were otherwise quite different. Agassiz was gregarious and his active research agenda was eclipsed by the time he spent with admiring audiences recapitulating his early discoveries. Alexander, on the other hand, continued the day to day work of collecting and classifying fossils and other specimens.

Meanwhile, two decades after seeing his first theory fail, Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The book posed both scientific and philosophical challenges for Agassiz. The brutal battle between the two scientists was often fought through surrogates. Ultimately, Darwin’s theory was accepted by the scientific community. Agassiz, his scientific reputation sullied by his refusal to abandon creationism, never fully recovered his standing in the academy.

In many ways the rise and fall of Agassiz sets the stage for the true tale told in Reef Madness. Alex spent much of his later life seeking evidence that he believed disproved one of Darwin’s minor theories – a coral reef theory contending that coral reefs form on subsiding land. Drawing on a wide variety of documentary material including personal and professional letters, research notes and scientific journals, Dobbs recounts the travel expeditions Alex undertook in the gathering of evidence. Dobbs also shares details on the politics of science for, indeed, when Alex challenged Darwin’s reef theory he encountered a cadre of supporters who were quite experienced in circling the wagons around any threats to the new master of the discipline.

All of this, and there is even a wonderful twist at the end.

I am so glad I picked up Reef Madness. The book engagingly demonstrates, as Dobbs writes,

that science, being a social as well as an intellectual enterprise, is prone to errors of idolatry, pride, cowardice, and politics.

Dobbs offers a great storyline, some interesting natural scientific knowledge, and suggests that our theoretical methods should match our mental processes. Reef Madness cautions us against mistaking a scientist for a prophet and substituting religious orthodoxy for attachment to a theory as an article of faith. Definitely worth adding to your reading list!

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