On April 16, 1896, a chartered steamer, the Croydon, embarked from Brisbane in Queensland on an American scientific investigation of the Great Barrier Reef—the beginning of an epic series of Pacific-Indian Ocean expeditions led by a 61-year-old American zoologist and mining millionaire, Alexander Agassiz. His young biologist assistant Alfred Mayor recorded that Agassiz would for the next 25 years “wander further and see more coral reefs than has any man of science of the present or past.”
Alex Agassiz was visiting the Great Barrier Reef to blow Charles Darwin’s theory of the origin of coral reefs out of the water, and his expedition marks the moment when Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was first catapulted into global prominence as part of a fierce debate engulfing the world’s leading geologists, marine scientists, and oceanographers.
It was odd for Darwin’s theory of coral reefs to be generating such heat so long after its drafting. It had been Darwin’s juvenile scientific achievement, scribbled 60 years earlier when voyaging around the world as a young gentleman’s companion on HMS Beagle, before he’d ever seen a coral reef. It was, he said, an act of pure deduction, based on seeing coral fossils within the rock strata of the Andes. It appeared that the mountain chains had been elevated gradually from the ocean floor by volcanic action over eons of time. Perhaps too, a corresponding subsidence had taken place on the bed of the Pacific and Indian oceans? This would explain a mystery that had long puzzled navigators and naturalists: How did these tiny coral “insects,” known to live only in shallow light-filled waters, build vast ramparts that rose up from the dark depths of the oceans?
If coral reefs grew in a ring pattern around the shallow fringes of volcanic pinnacles in the sea and these rocky islets were to subside at a pace that matched the reefs’ upward growth, they would create thick walls of dead coral with a living crust on top. Over many centuries this process would leave behind circular atolls or barrier reefs separated from the mainland by lagoonlike channels. Darwin’s subsidence theory was also strengthened over many years by the closer investigations of James Dwight Dana, a Pacific voyager-turned-Harvard geologist. Since then few scientists had challenged this simple and elegant theory—one that Darwin in his autobiography of 1876 regarded as “well established.”
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Darwin’s would-be coral reef conqueror, Alex Agassiz, was born at Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1835, son of the great naturalist Louis Agassiz, who later became a charismatic Harvard professor of zoology. But following the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, Louis Agassiz’s belief that species were God’s thoughts ordered in a beautiful “Plan of Creation” was derided by Darwinists around the world. By the 1870s, his increasingly strident and ineffectual attempts to snuff out Darwin’s theory of evolution cost him much scientific respect.
At the age of 13, Alex was sent to join Louis and his new wife, Liz Cary, in Boston after his mother, Cecile, died of tuberculosis. There, wrote Mayor, the boy developed a “reverence for his father [that] was almost a religion.” Witnessing Louis’ scientific humiliations at the hands of fellow Harvard professors proved agonizing. Yet Alex was determined to make his own way in life. Having graduated in engineering and zoology, he married a wealthy Bostonian, Anna Russell, in 1860. Six years later Alex surprised everyone by rescuing a struggling Michigan copper mine, which he miraculously turned into one of the largest and most prosperous in America.
Continuing to exercise his passion for marine biology, Alex also published a string of empirical papers on the taxonomy and embryology of echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers). Privately, he also admitted to a “general” acceptance of his father’s nemesis, Darwinian evolution.
In mid-December 1873, however, Alex Agassiz’s happy world collapsed. First, Louis Agassiz died suddenly on Dec. 14, after suffering a massive stroke. A few nights later Alex’s beloved wife, Anna, was diagnosed with severe pneumonia. Aged only 33, she was buried on Christmas Eve. Alex was too stricken even to comfort their three distraught sons. And as months and then years passed, Alex’s friends noticed permanent changes in his personality. The formerly gentle scientist became prone to bouts of explosive anger with students and employees alike.
In late 1876, as fragile as ever, Alex accepted an invitation to help a celebrated Scottish marine scientist, John Murray, sort through thousands of specimens of animals, plants, and seafloor deposits collected on the HMS Challenger’s three-year oceanographic expedition around the world. Alex became animated for the first time in years when Murray told him that billions of calcium skeletons from minute single-celled plankton rained down onto the ocean floor faster than they could be dissolved by the carbonic acid in seawater. Settling on rocky mounds pushed up from the ocean floor, this detritus gradually amalgamated into sedimentary limestone platforms. When these reached surface light, corals began to grow on top. Toward the windward edges, a patina of living corals fed on the wave-carried plankton, but those sheltered to leeward would starve and die, after which their calcium skeletons would dissolve in the seawater. Crescent-shaped atoll lagoons or canal-like barrier lagoons would thus be formed without any need for Darwinian subsidence.
Alex returned to America barely able to contain his excitement: “It is the first time since the death of my father and my wife that I have felt in the least as if there were anything to live for,” he wrote to a friend. Up to now he’d left issues like the origins of coral reefs to the geologists, but the scales had fallen from his eyes: “I never really accepted the theories of Darwin,” he confided to Murray. “It was all too mighty simple.” At last a wounded son had the chance to revenge his father’s humiliations.