Coral Reefs

Page 05

Semper proved that in certain specified cases, subsidence could not have played the chief part in originating the peculiar forms of the coral-islands. But while making this admission, he firmly maintained that exceptional cases, like those described in the Pelew Islands, were not sufficient to invalidate the theory of subsidence as applied to the widely spread atolls, encircling reefs, and barrier-reefs of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is worthy of note that to the end of his life Darwin maintained a friendly correspondence with Semper concerning the points on which they were at issue.

After the appearance of Semper's work, Dr. J.J. Rein published an account of the Bermudas, in which he opposed the interpretation of the structure of the islands given by Nelson and other authors, and maintained that the facts observed in them are opposed to the views of Darwin. Although, so far as I am aware, Darwin had no opportunity of studying and considering these particular objections, it may be mentioned that two American geologists have since carefully re-examined the district--Professor W.N. Rice in 1884 and Professor A. Heilprin in 1889--and they have independently arrived at the conclusion that Dr. Rein's objections cannot be maintained.

The most serious opposition to Darwin's coral-reef theory, however, was that which developed itself after the return of H.M.S. "Challenger" from her famous voyage. Mr. John Murray, one of the staff of naturalists on board that vessel, propounded a new theory of coral-reefs, and maintained that the view that they were formed by subsidence was one that was no longer tenable; these objections have been supported by Professor Alexander Agassiz in the United States, and by Dr. A. Geikie, and Dr. H.B. Guppy in this country.

Although Mr. Darwin did not live to bring out a third edition of his "Coral-Reefs," I know from several conversations with him that he had given the most patient and thoughtful consideration to Mr. Murray's paper on the subject. He admitted to me that had he known, when he wrote his work, of the abundant deposition of the remains of calcareous organisms on the sea floor, he might have regarded this cause as sufficient in a few cases to raise the summits of submerged volcanoes or other mountains to a level at which reef-forming corals can commence to flourish. But he did not think that the admission that under certain favourable conditions, atolls might be thus formed without subsidence, necessitated an abandonment of his theory in the case of the innumerable examples of the kind which stud the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

A letter written by Darwin to Professor Alexander Agassiz in May 1881 shows exactly the attitude which careful consideration of the subject led him to maintain towards the theory propounded by Mr. Murray:--"You will have seen," he writes, "Mr. Murray's views on the formation of atolls and barrier-reefs. Before publishing my book, I thought long over the same view, but only as far as ordinary marine organisms are concerned, for at that time little was known of the multitude of minute oceanic organisms. I rejected this view, as from the few dredgings made in the "Beagle", in the south temperate regions, I concluded that shells, the smaller corals, etc., decayed and were dissolved when not protected by the deposition of sediment, and sediment could not accumulate in the open ocean. Certainly, shells, etc., were in several cases completely rotten, and crumbled into mud between my fingers; but you will know whether this is in any degree common. I have expressly said that a bank at the proper depth would give rise to an atoll, which could not be distinguished from one formed during subsidence. I can, however, hardly believe in the existence of as many banks (there having been no subsidence) as there are atolls in the great oceans, within a reasonable depth, on which minute oceanic organisms could have accumulated to the depth of many hundred feet."

Darwin's concluding words in the same letter written within a year of his death, are a striking proof of the candour and openness of mind which he preserved so well to the end, in this as in other controversies.

Charles Darwin

All Pages of This Book