Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral Hardcover – 1 Nov 2009
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Otherwise, Reef Madness is a five star book.
Louis Agassiz was considered one of the world's greatest scientists (or natural philosophers as they were called at the time), and, after his migration to the United States from his native Switzerland, was viewed as America's greatest naturalist. He was a shrewd self-promoter who parlayed his explanation of glaciation and ice ages, and his encyclopedic knowledge of animal taxonomy, into a position of power and influence. However, he was a follower of Cuvier, and believed that species were created immutably by God. The fossil record was explained by a series of catastrophic annihilations (floods, ice ages) followed by divine creation of completely new species. Needless to say, he did not accept the theory of the origin of species by natural selection as propounded by Darwin. He and Darwin's followers engaged in heated, personal exchanges and attacks. In the end, however, Agassiz was nearly destroyed by the ensuing controversy, and his reputation and influence suffered severely.
Alexander, on the other hand was more mild-mannered and consciously avoided being drawn into his father's fights. He was a widely respected naturalist and an expert on marine zoology, and privately accepted the truth of evolution. He had his own disagreement with Darwin, however, over Darwin's widely-accepted theory of the formation of coral reefs. While not nearly as destructive as his father's evolution dispute, the disagreement involved much publishing, many attacks, and the accumulation of reams of data supporting each side. The fact that this controversy was not settled authoritatively until core samples were taken on Eniwetok atoll before the nuclear tests of the 1950's, long after the protagonists were dead and buried, makes for an almost mystery novel-like tale.
At times, the book reads like today's newspaper accounts of groups trying promote the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in our children's classrooms. Even though this debate was seemingly settled nearly 150 years ago, some ideas die hard.
This is quite an enjoyable read.
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