Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Giant’s Shoulders #11

The Giant's Shoulders #11 is up at Curving Normality. This month's issue has excellent reads from Schrodinger, Faraday, Darwin, et al. I particularly liked the article by Eric Michael Johnson, who blogs at The Primate Diaries. In the article, Rivalry Among the Reefs, Johnson writes about Darwin's little known coral reef work.

Coral reefs hold an important place in the history of evolutionary theory, as they were the subject of Darwin’s first scientific monograph and his official entrance into the scientific community. It was this research, and his eight-year study of barnacles, that led to the Royal Society awarding him the Copley Medal for outstanding achievement in science. Based on depth measurements taken of the coral reefs at Cook, Keeling and Mauritius Islands, Darwin developed his theory of “subsidence” to explain their development. Darwin didn’t know just how coral reefs grew, but he was aware that the living coral formed fringing reefs just below sea level along many coastlines. He was also aware of white strips of limestone that encircled volcanoes throughout the South Pacific. Darwin theorized that these were the remnants of fringing reefs that had been raised above sea level by the rising volcano. The same logic should therefore operate in reverse; if the coast were sinking then the coral would continue to grow upwards in order to remain in the warm, sunlit waters. Eventually, once the coastline was completely submerged, all that would remain would be the coral atoll. After arguing away every problem that had previously plagued coral reef formation, Darwin was left with his triumphant conclusion.

"On this view every difficulty vanishes; fringing-reefs are thus converted into barrier-reefs; and barrier-reefs, when encircling islands, are thus converted into atolls, the instant the last pinnacle of land sinks beneath the surface of the ocean."
Darwin was later shown to be correct by Dr. Harry Ladd, a researcher for the US Geological Survey. Ladd convinced the US War Department to drill holes deep into the Bikini and Eniwetok Atolls just prior to their obliteration in 1952 by hydrogen bombs.
After digging nearly 5,000 feet through the coral of Eniwetok Atoll, the drill finally passed through and hit pay dirt. The atoll had been built up from coral as the land had sunk from view, just as the theory of subsidence had predicted. Tiny organisms, just millimeters across, had pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps to create the largest natural structures ever created by a living being. Just next to the borehole that ended the debate, Ladd erected a small sign that still stands today. It reads, simply “Darwin was right!
Figure: Darwin's drawing of a reef from Voyage of the Beagle.


  1. Weren't coral reefs, along with the geological work he did, a major influence in Darwin's understanding of the presence of Deep Time? I remember reading somewhere that the reef work was quite important in shaping how he thought.

  2. I think you are right. Coral reefs probably inspired Darwin to think geologically.

    I wrote about some other inspirations earlier.