Coral Reefs

Page 04

When, in 1839, the expedition arrived at Sydney, a newspaper paragraph was found which gave the American naturalist the first intimation of Darwin's new theory of the origin of atolls and barrier-reefs. Writing in 1872, Dana describes the effect produced on his mind by reading this passage:--"The paragraph threw a flood of light over the subject, and called forth feelings of peculiar satisfaction, and of gratefulness to Mr. Darwin, which still come up afresh whenever the subject of coral islands is mentioned. The Gambier Islands in the Paumotus, which gave him the key to the theory, I had not seen; but on reaching the Feejees, six months later, in 1840, I found there similar facts on a still grander scale and of a more diversified character, so that I was afterward enabled to speak of his theory as established with more positiveness than he himself, in his philosophic caution, had been ready to adopt. His work on coral-reefs appeared in 1842, when my report on the subject was already in manuscript. It showed that the conclusions on other points, which we had independently reached, were for the most part the same. The principal points of difference relate to the reason for the absence of corals from some coasts, and the evidence therefrom as to changes of level, and the distribution of the oceanic regions of elevation and subsidence--topics which a wide range of travel over the Pacific brought directly and constantly to my attention."

Among the Reports of the United States Exploring Expedition, two important works from the pen of Professor Dana made their appearance;--one on "Zoophytes," which treats at length on "Corals and Coral-Animals," and the other on "Coral-Reefs and Islands." In 1872, Dana prepared a work of a more popular character in which some of the chief results of his studies are described; it bore the title of "Corals and Coral-Islands." Of this work, new and enlarged editions appeared in 1874 and 1890 in America, while two editions were published in this country in 1872 and 1875. In all these works their author, while maintaining an independent judgment on certain matters of detail, warmly defends the views of Darwin on all points essential to the theory.

Another able exponent and illustrator of the theory of coral-reefs was found in Professor J.B. Jukes, who accompanied H.M.S. "Fly", as naturalist, during the survey of the Great Barrier-Reef--in the years 1842 to 1846. Jukes, who was a man of great acuteness as well as independence of mind, concludes his account of the great Australian reefs with the following words:--"After seeing much of the Great Barrier-Reefs, and reflecting much upon them, and trying if it were possible by any means to evade the conclusions to which Mr. Darwin has come, I cannot help adding that his hypothesis is perfectly satisfactory to my mind, and rises beyond a mere hypothesis into the true theory of coral-reefs."

As the result of the clear exposition of the subject by Darwin, Lyell, Dana, and Jukes, the theory of coral-reefs had, by the middle of the present century, commanded the almost universal assent of both biologists and geologists. In 1859 Baron von Richthofen brought forward new facts in its support, by showing that the existence of the thick masses of dolomitic limestone in the Tyrol could be best accounted for if they were regarded as of coralline origin and as being formed during a period of long continued subsidence. The same views were maintained by Professor Mojsisovics in his "Dolomit-riffe von Sudtirol und Venetien," which appeared in 1879.

The first serious note of dissent to the generally accepted theory was heard in 1863, when a distinguished German naturalist, Dr. Karl Semper, declared that his study of the Pelew Islands showed that uninterrupted subsidence could not have been going on in that region. Dr. Semper's objections were very carefully considered by Mr. Darwin, and a reply to them appeared in the second and revised edition of his "Coral-Reefs," which was published in 1874. With characteristic frankness and freedom from prejudice, Darwin admitted that the facts brought forward by Dr.

Charles Darwin

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