A talk on Darwin's coral reef theory -- his first and final test


A coral atoll, from Darwin's The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, 1842.

For those teeming millions near Hanover, N.H., here's notice that I'll be giving a talk at Dartmouth at 4pm today -- Thu, Feb 5 -- about Darwin's first, favorite, and (to me) most interesting theory, which was his theory about how coral reefs formed.

This is the subject of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, and I'll be posting more about it next week, during the Blog for Darwin festival. But the short version -- and the topic of my talk -- is this:

Darwin's coral reef theory, published immediately after his return from the Beagle voyage, was a sort of test-run for his theory of natural selection. It anticipated the species theory in both method and concept:, for it was bold, imaginative, and it explained a variety and distribution of forms as the products of incremental change in response to dynamic forces. It was also deductive as hell, and so flew in the face of the inductive principles that supposed ruled science then. Yet it won him a place in British science on his return to England. Charles Lyell, the leading figure in geology at the time, was so delighted with the theory that when Darwin told him about it, Lyell danced around the room shouting and laughing.

It's a beautiful theory, and none, he said in late life, ever gave him more pleasure. Yet it spurred a controversy that inverted weirdly the controversy over his evolution theory. While he didn't publish his evolution theory until he had collected massive evidence, he published his coral reef theory after seeing only a handful of reefs. This made it vulnerable, and while it won quick acceptance as the textbook explanation, it came under increasing fire during the century as new evidence seemed to undermine it. By the 1870s, when Alexander Agassiz -- the son of Darwin's old creationist foe Louis Agassiz, but a Darwinist himself -- challenged the reef theory in earnest, it was quite vulnerable. Darwin found himself again facing an Agassiz -- only this time it was an Agassiz who held the stronger evidentiary hand. The challenge would test, in ways both illuminating and torturous, both Darwin's coral reef theory and for the brand of creative empiricism that Darwin had helped establish with his theory of natural selection.

Why haven't you heard of this before? Beats me. The book, though warmly received by the scientific and lay readers it found, was not strongly promoted when it was published in 2005. In this year of Darwin I'm hoping to reach more people with this overlooked but crucial episode, and will be giving this talk at several venues. If you're interested in hosting a talk at your university, library, scientific society, or Darwin festival, drop me a line at dave[at]daviddobbs.net.

Or come to snowy Hanover today! The talk is at the Rockfeller Center on the Dartmouth green at 4 pm. Free and open to the public.

PS You can read the introduction to Reef Madness here.

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I'm really sorry to say that I have not read your book, but clearly I should. I've been fascinated by the role of this question (the reefs) in Darwin's development as a scholar, but I have not really explored the post monograph history of the idea in any detail.

I've been playing with my new Kindle. Should I kindle it?