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Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 4, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Few questions in 19th-century science aroused more controversy than the origin of coral reefs. Charles Darwin posited that the corals grew upon sinking land forms, a theory widely accepted despite its lack of empirical evidence. Enter Alexander Agassiz (1835–1910), son of the renowned naturalist Louis, whose earlier dispute with Darwin over evolution tarnished his reputation as a scientist. A meticulous researcher, Alexander disapproved of Darwin's "intuitive leaps"; he believed that proper science must work "through eyes-on observation and the tireless accumulation of reliable information." To this end, he spent the last 25 years of his life visiting every major reef formation on the planet. But though he gathered a wealth of evidence that seemed to refute Darwin, he never published his findings. By the 1950s, when technology enabled researchers to drill for deep coral samples, data proved that Darwin had guessed right after all. Dobbs (The Great Gulf, etc.) clearly sides with Agassiz in this story of clashing intellects and egos, arguing that Alexander's aversion to confrontation and his emphasis on methodology sprang from the embarrassment caused by his father's stubborn creationism, as well as from annoyance at Darwin's stoking of his own reputation. That Alexander's failure shows Darwin's theory to be all the more brilliant may be an unintended irony of this engrossing chapter in the history of modern science.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Charles Darwin's first scientific splash, a theory on the formation of coral atolls, is now accepted; but it had a rival in a theory advanced by naturalist Alexander Agassiz. Dobbs approaches this chapter in scientific history from a number of perspectives, including Alexander's personality as formed in the shadow of his father, Louis, one of the most famous naturalists of the Victorian era. On a more abstract level, Dobbs discusses the balance between induction and deduction in scientific reasoning. The biography is inherently more interesting, and Dobbs highlights the contrast between Alexander's introspection and his father's charisma and self-centeredness. By the 1870s, Louis Agassiz rigidly resisted Darwinism; Alexander accepted evolution but not, when he learned of data collected on the seminal expedition of the Challenger, Darwin's idea about atolls. Darwin contended they formed around subsiding mountains; Alexander maintained the coral accreted upward. Describing Agassiz's voyages to atolls, Dobbs skillfully relates a story that, if lacking a triumphant ending, yet depicts Agassiz's quiet drama in constructing a theory, wrong though it was. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (January 4, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375421610
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375421617
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,172,685 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I write book, magazine articles, and a blog on science, medicine, and culture, contributing regularly to publications such as the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Slate, Scientific American, and Scientific American Mind where I'm a contributing editor.

Sometimes people ask I write about science and medicine. For a long time I replied that I found intriguing the puzzles that scientists and doctors face and try to solve. That certainly holds; there's no detective story more gripping than the effort to crack a tough scientific problem or save the life of a patient whose illness defies the usual measures.

Yet as I write more about these subjects, whether it be a 19th-century argument about coral reefs (Reef Madness), a 20th-century argument about how to count fish (The Great Gulf), brain surgery for depression, or the biology of fear, I increasingly appreciate what science and medicine can reveal about our culture. I don't want to call it "science criticism," as one talks about art or literary criticism, but I think that looking at science and medicine and how they are done and received can show us as much about our culture as can critiquing books, movies, music, or art.

The way we view mood and its disorders, for instance, whether as scientists or lay people, reveals much about how we think about how the mind works, about our sense of responsibility for one's actions, about how tightly or loosely our characters are dictated by our biology, and about how much power we have to change our own thoughts and actions. Likewise, whether we favor fighting malaria with expensive vaccine programs or cheap (but effective) mosquito netting says a lot about our values and our sense of what sort of solutions are most valuable. There, as elsewhere, we tend to favor the expensive tech fix rather than the simple.

Or consider memory. One of my richest reading pleasures was reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a splendid meditation on (among other things) solitude, loneliness, society, and the unique world that memory creates for each of us. I've rarely read anything so deeply immersive or so revealing about how our minds work. Yet my appreciation of Proust, and of memory, is only magnified by learning about the science of memory. We learn -- we memorize and recall -- via a gorgeous cascade of synaptic and genetic interaction that can sear into our minds the sound of a clarinet or the lovely swing of Ken Griffey -- or recall, in a flood of remembrance, the lights, voices, and very air that surrounded us years ago when we sipped a certain tea whose scent, now unexpectedly countered, takes us rushing back. The science behind such memories is as rich and informative about who we are as is the phenomenology -- the feel of it -- described so beautifully by Proust.

Thus my transformation from literature major to a writer who writes about science. I don't think "science writer" quite a fair label actually; like "southern novelist," it implies limits and a parochialism that may not hold. Good writing about science, like good writing about baseball, pig farming, politics, or art, is about just about everything.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Charles Bradley on May 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
"Reef Madness" is multiple biographies packaged with a mystery
and a description of how science is done and scientific societies
and institutions are run. I recommend it highly. There are
important lessons for those who have made up their mind, pro or
con, about an analogous current controversy, the impact of CO2
on climate.

I have only two minor complaints. As a mystery, the clue to the
solution is not available to the reader until the solution is
revealed. As a biography, there are frequent incidents of the
mind reading sin.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Charles Miller on August 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book is fascinating on many fronts. First, it is a quite readable and informative biography of Louis Agassiz and his son Alexander. Second, it is an account of one of the longest-running controversies in the history of science. And, finally, it gives great insights to the current debate in the US over the teaching of "intelligent design."

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.
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5 of 8 people found the following review helpful By John D. Wagner on January 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a superb work of historical science, a gripping story, well-told. And it has everything... Father-son dynamics, the history of science, and the rise of Darwinism, as the story is played out through a profile of Alexander Agassiz and his dad, Louis, one of the last Lamarckians. The main reason I liked the book was the quality, drive, and consistent voice of the insightful prose. The writing is simply lyric! If you liked books like Dava Sobel's book "Longitude" or Mark Kurlansky's "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World" -- you'll LOVE this book.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
In the Kindle edition errors in layout and text are frequent, distracting and egregious.

Otherwise, Reef Madness is a five star book.
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By Julia on January 19, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It was interesting how science was conducted in the early 20th century.
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