Coral Reefs

Page 02



A scientific discovery is the outcome of an interesting process of evolution in the mind of its author. When we are able to detect the germs of thought in which such a discovery has originated, and to trace the successive stages of the reasoning by which the crude idea has developed into an epoch-making book, we have the materials for reconstructing an important chapter of scientific history. Such a contribution to the story of the "making of science" may be furnished in respect to Darwin's famous theory of coral-reefs, and the clearly reasoned treatise in which it was first fully set forth.

The subject of corals and coral-reefs is one concerning which much popular misconception has always prevailed. The misleading comparison of coral-rock with the combs of bees and the nests of wasps is perhaps responsible for much of this misunderstanding; one writer has indeed described a coral-reef as being "built by fishes by means of their teeth." Scarcely less misleading, however, are the references we so frequently meet with, both in prose and verse, to the "skill," "industry," and "perseverance" of the "coral-insect" in "building" his "home." As well might we praise men for their cleverness in making their own skeletons, and laud their assiduity in filling churchyards with the same. The polyps and other organisms, whose remains accumulate to form a coral-reef, simply live and perform their natural functions, and then die, leaving behind them, in the natural course of events, the hard calcareous portions of their structures to add to the growing reef.

While the forms of coral-reefs and coral-islands are sometimes very remarkable and worthy of attentive study, there is no ground, it need scarcely be added, for the suggestion that they afford proofs of design on the part of the living builders, or that, in the words of Flinders, they constitute breastworks, defending the workshops from whence "infant colonies might be safely sent forth."

It was not till the beginning of the present century that travellers like Beechey, Chamisso, Quoy and Gaimard, Moresby, Nelson, and others, began to collect accurate details concerning the forms and structure of coral-masses, and to make such observations on the habits of reef-forming polyps, as might serve as a basis for safe reasoning concerning the origin of coral-reefs and islands. In the second volume of Lyell's "Principles of Geology," published in 1832, the final chapter gives an admirable summary of all that was then known on the subject. At that time, the ring-form of the atolls was almost universally regarded as a proof that they had grown up on submerged volcanic craters; and Lyell gave his powerful support to that theory.

Charles Darwin was never tired of acknowledging his indebtedness to Lyell. In dedicating to his friend the second edition of his "Naturalist's Voyage Round the World," Darwin writes that he does so "with grateful pleasure, as an acknowledgment that the chief part of whatever scientific merit this journal and the other works of the author may possess, has been derived from studying the well-known and admirable 'Principles of Geology.'"

The second volume of Lyell's "Principles" appeared after Darwin had left England; but it was doubtless sent on to him without delay by his faithful friend and correspondent, Professor Henslow. It appears to have reached Darwin at a most opportune moment, while, in fact, he was studying the striking evidences of slow and long-continued, but often interrupted movement on the west coast of South America. Darwin's acute mind could not fail to detect the weakness of the then prevalent theory concerning the origin of the ring-shaped atolls--and the difficulty which he found in accepting the volcanic theory, as an explanation of the phenomena of coral-reefs, is well set forth in his book.

In an interesting fragment of autobiography, Darwin has given us a very clear account of the way in which the leading idea of the theory of coral-reefs originated in his mind; he writes, "No other work of mine was begun in so deductive a spirit as this, for the whole theory was thought out on the west coast of South America, before I had seen a true coral-reef.

Charles Darwin

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The Autobiography Of Charles Darwin