- Publisher: Pantheon Books (2005)
- ASIN: B001J9NO90
- Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,123,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, And The Meaning Of Coral
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Top Customer Reviews
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
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.
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
It was interesting how science was conducted in the early 20th century.Published 18 months ago by Julia
In the Kindle edition errors in layout and text are frequent, distracting and egregious.
Otherwise, Reef Madness is a five star book.