14 March 2012

Reef Madness, by David Dobbs

Posted by Callan Bentley

Somewhere recently (a comment on a blog post, maybe?), I saw David Dobbs mention his book Reef Madness. When it was published in 2005, I thought, “Oh, I should check that out,” but then half a decade goes by and I hadn’t made it happen.

So I was glad that Dobbs was still promoting the volume, because it gave me a chance to ask for a copy to review. Graciously, he had his publishers send one on, and before the end of the week, I had begun.

Here’s a quick summary: As a callow youth, Charles Darwin sailed around the world on the Beagle, while reading Lyell’s Principles of Geology. He got to thinking intensely about vertical motions of the Earth’s crust in particular after experiencing an earthquake in Chile, and observing the subsequent uplift of the landscape. Later visits to coral atolls led him to suggest a novel theory for their formation: the idea that old volcanic islands developed a fringing reef, then sank (and were eroded) so the fringing reef became a barrier reef surrounding a smaller island, and eventually a coral atoll surrounding a lagoon. This notion was a hit, and it was the first brick to be laid in the foundation of Darwin’s reputation as a publishing scientist. Darwin later came up with other ideas, some that have stood the test of time (and science), and some that haven’t. His most enduring proposal is the idea that natural selection is the driving mechanism of biological evolution. This idea butted up against the creationist notions of another famous scientist of the day, Louis Agassiz. Ensconced at Harvard and known for his successful evangelism of Ice Age theory, Agassiz constantly promoted the idea of biodiversity being the signature of God’s handiwork. Thus, he found himself defending ideas which were invalidated by Darwin to an audience who was increasingly aware of that invalidation.  Darwin’s insights, and the elder Agassiz’s refusal to accept them, led to a downfall in Agassiz’s reputation. With a touch of hyperbole, it’s fair to say it tainted the legacy of the man who gave us the Ice Age. Dobbs documents this change in the elder Agassiz – or rather, his tenacious and bullheaded intellectual stasis while the world around him became increasingly convinced that biological evolution had occurred.

Agassiz had a son, Alexander, who grew up to be a scientist also, and, Dobbs suggests, had some resentment of the way Darwin’s ideas eviscerated those of his father. When the younger Agassiz was sufficiently established in his career, he took up Darwin’s earliest scientific notion, and began a multi-decade attempt at evaluating its validity. (He didn’t attack evolution at all: Dobbs shows that Alex was convinced even when his father was not.) Exceptionally detail-oriented and focused, Alex worked and worked on coral reefs, attempting to undermine Darwin’s conclusions, but he never got around to a full repudiation. For Alex, there was always one more location to look at, but his letters indicate how strongly he felt about Darwin being wrong.

As it turns out, the modern scientific community largely accepts Darwin’s basic premise, with some caveats for other mechanisms of creating or modifying coral reefs. In spite of the years he spent on the topic, Agassiz’s (unpublished) views haven’t stood the test of time. Drilling core through the reef limestone to the underlying basalt helped tilt the balance of opinion decisively in Darwin’s direction. Though most of the book deals with the controversy and the lives of the three main characters (Darwin, Louis Agassiz, and Alex Agassiz), a final chapter resolves the issue as far as the subsequent science is concerned.

I enjoyed the book, as it took material I was familiar with (such as evolution and the Ice Age idea) and expanded from there into this coral controversy, of which I was unaware, and the lives of these men doing science in a different era. It was an enjoyable read, and certainly well written. I’d recommend checking it out.

On the other hand, Alex Agassiz is a bit of a ‘sad sack,’ and he’s not nearly as compelling a character as his father or Darwin. He suffers some horrific losses of loved ones in his early adulthood, and then appears to retreat into a world defined by work. The latter chapters where he’s essentially obsessed and biased but rich enough to travel the world searching for evidence to undermine Darwin feel fundamentally sad to me – futile and solitary and empty. The final chapter, which quickly (a few pages) resolves the subsequent science in Darwin’s favor, casts the previous several chapters (many, many pages) into a dismaying light: All that hard work, and nothing really came of it! So brace yourself for that, if you read the book: it’s a tad dismaying. (This is the nature of the historical facts, by the way, not the way Dobbs covered the material.)

In fact, now that I’m spending a bit of time thinking about it, that sense of Alex Agassiz’s futile expenditure of emotion and energy on this issue leaves me feeling pity for the way he spent his life. This overall sense is in contrast with the light, tongue-in-cheek title of the book, which alludes to drug culture in a clever way, but also in a way that isn’t meaningfully connected to the actual content of the book.

Dobbs has to be clever to deal with the narrative structure of a book like this – since Darwin did his work on atolls early in his career, and Alex Agassiz did his towards the end of his career, plus the fact that Darwin’s of the previous generation, there’s not the sort of moment-for-moment tit-for-tat we see in other controversies, where the combatants are contemporaries. I think he accomplishes this well with some skipping around in time, guided by themes rather than strict chronology. Kind of like some of the backstories featured in a television show like Lost.

In preparation for this review, I had the opportunity to ask author David Dobbs a few questions about his book.

CB: Tell me a little bit about your personal intellectual background, and how you came to be interested in the story you write about in Reef Madness.

DD: I was an English major and came to science writing in a roundabout way — and I came to Reef Madness, too, through a side door. My first book, The Northern Forest, written with my friend Richard Ober, was about the northern New England forest — an environmental book. That led me to write my second, The Great Gulf, which was about the collapse of the New England cod fishery. A key figure in Gulf was Henry Bryant Bigelow, a Harvard oceanographer who pioneered the study of the Gulf of Maine in the 1910s. And Bigelow, I read to my puzzlement one day, spent one of his last student trips investigating the Maldives, in the Indian Ocean, with one Alexander Agassiz, who was, my source related, finishing 30 years of field research to support a theory of coral reef formation he never quite fully articulated. That image — of a man working 30 years on something he doesn’t quite finish — drew me to a memoir of Alexander’s, and the stories and tensions I found there set me off and running.

As you researched and wrote the book, what was a surprising detail or connection or perspective that you encountered? Please share a bit of the process of discovery.

I was astonished by many things. But the overriding, continual surprise, and a wonderful sense of discovery, was that the “coral reef problem” was the second biggest scientific controversy of the 19th century, eclipsed only by the fight over Darwin’s theory of evolution — yet no one ever mentioned or seemed to remember it. And this was a wild story, full of extreme actions, strange people, and elemental struggles about scientific and family influence. How did a conflict so huge, and so long — for it ran, really, for 121 years — fade so quickly into obscurity? I suspected that the debate about coral embodied deeper conflicts and debates that might still run today. I found it exactly so. I was also continually amazed at how everyone’s own actions at some point turned back to blindside them.

It seems that one of the challenges you encountered in writing the book is that Alex Agassiz was a fairly private individual who cleaned out his archives of material that potentially could have been interesting to someone like you. What do you think his motivations were in taking those actions, and how did you deal with the lack of primary documentation about his life?

Alexander was private by temperament, clearly, but also by determination. He had seen his father pay a tremendous price for being overly public. So he didn’t commit much emotion to paper. But his best friend, Theo Lyman, did, and you could often learn more about Alex’s feelings from Lyman’s letters than you could Alex’s. Now and then, however, Alex let loose in a letter, and there you learned a lot.

But as you say, he was guarded, and he was meticulous. I was amazed, late in the going, to find that his own letters from the most intensely trying couple of weeks of his life were missing. Someone — probably him, for he kept his things close — had razored a half-dozen pages from that period from the copybook he kept of his letters (a sort of automatic carbon-copy generator that many people used to keep copies of their outgoing letters back then).

So I sometimes had to read between the lines and between the actions. But there was no lack of documentation. Alex’s output was steady, if conservative, and the thoughts, ideas, and actions of the other main characters — Alex’s father, Louis Agassiz, and Charles Darwin — were amply recorded both by others and by their own letters, diaries, and papers.

In writing the book, what was your strategy for dealing with the fact that Darwin, the older of the two scientists you focus on, did his coral work early in his career, while Agassiz was both younger by a generation and did his work late in his career? How does a writer construct a compelling narrative when the two protagonists don’t really overlap one another in time, space, and interest?

The key point here is that while Darwin and Alex were not contemporaries, and ended up in conflict over coral reefs, they shared a lot in terms of similar interests, scientific perspectives, and life histories. Both lost their mothers early in life; both favored a rigorous empiricism; both were appalled, in their different ways, at the excesses of Alex’s father, Louis, who was, until Darwin felled him, the biggest scientist in the U.S.. and Darwin’s great obstacle here. They shared all that; and twice they met, Alex and Darwin, and very much liked one another. It was to Darwin, for instance, that Alex first confessed that he sided more with Darwin than with Louis on the question of evolution — a huge and risky gesture. Most vitally, Charles Darwin and Alexander Agassiz shared an intense interest both in the direct question of how coral reefs formed and in how that “coral reef problem,” as it was known, tested and taxed the empirical principles everyone was trying to work from at the time. In a sense, they had all the same problems and thought the same things important. Yet somehow that brought them into direct and lasting opposition.

What would you say the “lessons” (if any) are (for science, or society, or just personally) from the Darwin/Agassiz coral reef controversy?

Be careful whom you argue with. Finish what you start. And if you want to really understand how science works, immerse yourself in a fight like this — a deep, closely fought, high-stakes argument not just over facts and reputation, but over how science is done.

The other prime lesson from this story is that almost every scientific argument is partly a conflict between the impulse to stick as close to the facts as possible and the impulse to tell the most ambitious, imaginative story that can be squared with the facts. Parsimony versus poetry. It’s there all the time — in every discipline, department, and researcher. It’s one of the things that drives science and scientists alike.

I’d like to express my gratitude David for taking the time to share his thoughts with readers of this blog. Thanks!