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

4.6 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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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
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This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
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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: #801,568 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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: Hardcover
_Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral_, David Dobbs

One gets the impression that the author didn't have enough material to fill a book adhering strictly to the title topic, and so padded it with fully 150 pages of material on Louis Agassiz's (Alexander's father) life and work.

No matter, the result is a fascinating study of the change in scientific methodology over the course of the 19th century, using the specific controversy over formation of coral reefs to illustrate opposing conceptions of what it means to "conduct science". What constitutes a scientific theory, and what is the acceptable way to formulate one? Is it necessary to gather a mountain of evidence until an explanatory theory emerges -- as Baconian inductivists would hold -- or is it ok to make a speculative deduction based on a handful of facts, and challenge others to disprove it?

Alexander was very much in the inductivist camp, having observed the downfall of his bombastic father and thereby moved to the opposite conservative pole, in his later years visited more coral reefs than any man before or since in his attempt to falsify Darwin's coral formation theory. He knew that Darwin had been proved spectacularly wrong at Glen Roy by his father, and saw that his coral reef theory was based on circular reasoning: coral reefs were to be attributed to widespread subsidence (which was only a speculative occurrence), while the proof of subsidence was....coral reefs. As a confirmed plodder, I found myself rooting for Alexander, that he would be proved triumphant over his brilliant competitor after so many years of hard work.

Darwin on the other hand (the author argues) was much more in the mold of today's scientists in his approach.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a very good book about Louis and Alexander Agassiz. The former a brilliant young, narcissistic naturalist whose expository skills catapulted him to scientific prominence but he met his comeuppance by arrogantly misusing his assistants and then fighting the theory of evolution with faulty data. He self-destructively discredits his earlier real contributions. He is a tragic figure. He wanted nature to speak for itself rather than theories, but was committed to a creative god making order. The picture of Darwin that the book gives is much less useful repeating in incomplete ways what is in other much better histories.

The great contribution of the book is the laying out of the bio's of Louis and Alexander and sketching, almost as a scientific mystery unfolding a step at a time, the contesting ideas of how coral reefs form. Darwin's theory of subsistence dominates despite mounting evidence to the contrary. And then Alexander never publishes his comprehensive refutation of the theory for reasons that are never known. The book ends with the irony that when drill holes are made for the atomic test in the Pacific in the 1960s it turns out that what was taken to be sandstone underlayment of reefs thrust up like the sandstones of Dover, are really old reef detritus and hence, along with plate tectonics atolls are really piled up reef growth on top of subsistent subterranean mountains. So, in the end Darwin was correct although not because of anything other than having made an appealing guess, i.e. he had no evidence.

The book ends with a Popperian criteria for science, falsification, which the author takes to have been the razor of what is truly scientific which could have been used to parse through the contesting claims.
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