Coral Reefs

Page 03

I had therefore only to verify and extend my views by a careful examination of living reefs. But it should be observed that I had during the two previous years been incessantly attending to the effects on the shores of South America of the intermittent elevation of the land, together with the denudation and deposition of sediment. This necessarily led me to reflect much on the effects of subsidence, and it was easy to replace in imagination the continued deposition of sediment by the upward growth of corals. To do this was to form my theory of the formation of barrier-reefs and atolls."

On her homeward voyage, the "Beagle" visited Tahiti, Australia, and some of the coral-islands in the Indian Ocean, and Darwin had an opportunity of testing and verifying the conclusion at which he had arrived by studying the statements of other observers.

I well recollect a remarkable conversation I had with Darwin, shortly after the death of Lyell. With characteristic modesty, he told me that he never fully realised the importance of his theory of coral-reefs till he had an opportunity of discussing it with Lyell, shortly after the return of the "Beagle". Lyell, on receiving from the lips of its author a sketch of the new theory, was so overcome with delight that he danced about and threw himself into the wildest contortions, as was his manner when excessively pleased. He wrote shortly afterwards to Darwin as follows:--"I could think of nothing for days after your lesson on coral-reefs, but of the tops of submerged continents. It is all true, but do not flatter yourself that you will be believed till you are growing bald like me, with hard work and vexation at the incredulity of the world." On May 24th, 1837, Lyell wrote to Sir John Herschel as follows:--"I am very full of Darwin's new theory of coral-islands, and have urged Whewell to make him read it at our next meeting. I must give up my volcanic crater forever, though it cost me a pang at first, for it accounted for so much." Dr. Whewell was president of the Geological Society at the time, and on May 31st, 1837, Darwin read a paper entitled "On Certain Areas of Elevation and Subsidence in the Pacific and Indian oceans, as deduced from the Study of Coral Formations," an abstract of which appeared in the second volume of the Society's proceedings.

It was about this time that Darwin, having settled himself in lodgings at Great Marlborough Street, commenced the writing of his book on "Coral-Reefs." Many delays from ill-health and the interruption of other work, caused the progress to be slow, and his journal speaks of "recommencing" the subject in February 1839, shortly after his marriage, and again in October of the same year. In July 1841, he states that he began once more "after more than thirteen month's interval," and the last proof-sheet of the book was not corrected till May 6th, 1842. Darwin writes in his autobiography, "This book, though a small one, cost me twenty months of hard work, as I had to read every work on the islands of the Pacific, and to consult many charts." The task of elaborating and writing out his books was, with Darwin, always a very slow and laborious one; but it is clear that in accomplishing the work now under consideration, there was a long and constant struggle with the lethargy and weakness resulting from the sad condition of his health at that time.

Lyell's anticipation that the theory of coral-reefs would be slow in meeting with general acceptance was certainly not justified by the actual facts. On the contrary the new book was at once received with general assent among both geologists and zoologists, and even attracted a considerable amount of attention from the general public.

It was not long before the coral-reef theory of Darwin found an able exponent and sturdy champion in the person of the great American naturalist, Professor James D. Dana. Two years after the return of the "Beagle" to England, the ships of the United States Exploring Expedition set sail upon their four years' cruise, under the command of Captain Wilkes, and Dana was a member of the scientific staff.

Charles Darwin

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The Autobiography Of Charles Darwin