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.
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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 TaylorCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved