[Coral-List] Darwin was WRONG about reef formation

Dennis Hubbard dennis.hubbard at oberlin.edu
Mon Oct 19 17:06:21 UTC 2020

Hi Doug:

Great commentary.... thanks. The whole issue with Darwin's "reef theory" is
incredibly complex and illustrates how much we as scientists are just as
fallible as lay folks. It's just my opinion, but I think that part of the
"controversy" arose from the fact that Darwin chose to publish his theory
in a book titled "Coral Reefs". It is a wonderful volume but the title
infers that it provides an explanation for all reefs. A long time ago, I
tracked down a series of papers (mostly in Nature) that were written by the
big thinkers of the day, including Darwin, Dana, Gieke, Agassiz and a host
of other excellent geomorphology scholars. The bottom line is that few
agreed with each other (surprise!!). As an interesting sidebar, I spent
some time tracking all the disparate articles by Darwin and his
contemporaries, assuming that they each had their own theories and were
making their arguments in separate venues. On closer examination, I
realized that nearly all the discussions were published in Nature. My
initial assumption was that this was perhaps a special issue on what was
called the "reef problem". Once I gathered all the papers, I realized that
they were largely letters to the editor of Nature over a single year (hence
the common publication dates). Given the location of Nature's publication
house close to most of the reef workers at the time, I can imagine these
learned scholars reading each issue, sitting down and composing a contrary
letter to the editor and walking it over to *Nature*. I bring this up
because it sounds a lot like the Coral Listserve..... you are in good


On Mon, Oct 19, 2020 at 8:43 AM Douglas Fenner via Coral-List <
coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov> wrote:

>      I've just been told by a source that surely knows, that the Annual
> Reviews are NOT peer reviewed!!!!  I am astonished, how can this be???:  So
> beware.  I'd suggest that needs to be changed.
>      One comment I received said most reefs aren't atolls.  I don't know
> what the count is, but Wikipedia says there are about 440 atolls.  No
> theory covers everything in the universe.  That is true with Darwin's
> theory of reef formation.  His theory applies to reefs on oceanic
> volcanoes, and it doesn't include the theory about sea level changes, which
> describes very real aspects of coral reef formation which Darwin didn't
> cover.  In addition, the world's three largest barrier reefs, the Great
> Barrier Reef, the barrier reef of New Caledonia, and the Belize Barrier
> reef, are all on continental shelves and Darwin's theory does not apply,
> they did not form because the continents were sinking (New Caledonia is a
> small fragment of continent).  Further, the Caribbean has four atolls east
> of Belize and Mexico, three in Belize and one in Mexico (Chinchorro Banks)
> which are on raised continental blocks not volcanoes, and thus the theory
> doesn't apply to them (Cozumel may become an atoll if sea level rises
> enough, it is similarly on a continental block).  I read in Wikipedia that
> Nicaragua has eight atolls in the Caribbean, my guess is they are similar.
> And then there are a wide variety of reef shapes that don't fit into any of
> the three shapes Darwin had in his theory.  Patch reefs, faroes, bank
> reefs, etc etc.  Atolls aren't always complete rings, there are crescents
> and a variety of other shapes.
>       As an interesting side bar, there is a book entitled "Reef madness,
> Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the meaning of coral" by David
> Dobbs, 2005, Pantheon Books.  Recounts the story of how Louis Agassiz,
> famous biologist at the time, argued that Darwin's theory of natural
> selection was wrong, and of course lost.  His son, Alexander Agassiz, tried
> to avenge his father by proving that Darwin's theory of reef formation was
> wrong.  He was no more successful than his father.
>       Even given all that, Darwin's theory would not predict that all reefs
> would be atolls, unless volcanoes had ceased forming in the oceans and
> there were no reefs on continental shelves, neither of which are the case.
> He'd predict reefs in a wide variety of stages from fringing to barrier to
> atolls on oceanic volcanoes, depending on their age.  Which is pretty much
> what we have.  By the way, not only do volcanoes in the ocean subside, but
> a large part of the loss of material above the water line is due to
> erosion, not subsidence.  I live on such a volcano, Tutuila in American
> Samoa, and erosion is VERY active here in the relatively high rainfall.
> HUGE volumes of material have been eroded from Tutuila (which is tiny
> compared to the main islands in Hawaii), I estimate cubic MILES of basalt,
> much of which was weathered into clays and then eroded into the sea.  In
> spite of vast amounts of erosion into the sea, the sediment didn't kill the
> reefs, they are alive today.  Because it has been going on for about a
> million and a half years, it is slow enough that at any one time the amount
> of sediment is something the reefs can survive.  By and large the reefs
> look clean today.  It is amazing what you can accomplish if you have enough
> time.
>       Darwin didn't know why volcanoes subsided.  There are two processes.
> One is that the growth of a volcano in the ocean puts that weight on the
> plate on which it stands, which in turn floats on the very viscous
> semi-fluid of hot rocks below the plate, just as continents float like
> icebergs in the same way in what is called "isostasy".  As a result, as the
> volcano builds, it depresses the plate at that location, much as a weight
> on a water bed depresses the bed surface where the weight is.  Even small
> islands have surprisingly large volumes, the volume of Tutuila where I
> live, tiny compared to the main Hawaiian Islands, is over 2000 cubic
> KILOMETERS of basalt rock.  Yeow.  Some shield volcanoes are enormous,
> Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii are volcanoes that are
> not only the world's tallest mountains (tallest from base, not highest
> tops) and the volume of Mauna Loa alone is greater than the entire Sierra
> Nevada mountain range in California, I've been told.  The volcano depresses
> the plate underneath it, and so as the volcano builds it also sinks some.
> I've read that there are fossil reefs on the side of the Big Is of Hawaii
> that are over 1000 feet deep in the ocean, they formed at the surface and
> were carried down as the volcano sank.  Obviously the volcano builds faster
> than it sinks usually.  The sinking is slow compared to the building of the
> volcano and so it is always behind and so continues for a while after the
> volcano ceases erupting.  All this happens relatively quickly on a
> geological time scale, it stops in a few million years.  This is not the
> process that produces the reef sequence Darwin outlined, it takes about 12
> million years at a minimum to produce an atoll.  The second process is that
> the plate itself sinks.  The plate is formed at a mountain ridge that is a
> spreading center, in the Pacific it is in the southeastern Pacfic.  Lava
> erupts at the crest of the mountain range in between two plates that are
> moving away from each other opening a crack between them.  The plate is
> initially hot and the surface is relatively shallow.  The plate then moves
> away from the spreading center (often at about 7-10 cm a year, about the
> speed growth of toenails), carrying any volcanoes that form on the plate
> with it, and as it cools it very slowly sinks.  Eventually it reaches a
> trench, where the plate is subducted down into the earth.  Usually a trench
> is reached within about 100 million years.  That might seem like a long
> time, but the ocean floor is young everywhere compared to most continental
> material, which can be well over 3 Billion years old in places.  The reef
> carbonate at the bottom of the drill hole, right above the volcanic basalt
> rock of the volcano it sits on at Einewetak Atoll in the Marshall Islands
> where an atoll was first drilled, is 60 million years old.  This article is
> talking about atoll formation on the order of a few hundred thousand
> years.  That's on top of a stack of carbonate atoll that is up to at least
> 60 million years old.  What they are talking about is relatively
> superficial and young.  Which doesn't mean it isn't real, it certainly is
> very real.
>       I await comment from a geologist or anyone who has read the review
> article, will surely be a while before we hear.
>       For an author of a book or annual review, which doesn't get peer
> review, I'd suggest that in the long term, your reputation will be in
> better condition if you try to get lots of comment voluntarily before
> publishing, to try to avoid the situation the authors of this review may
> find themselves in, of public criticism by experts in the field.  It is to
> the long term best interests of authors to have peer review, even if in the
> short term it can be very painful and without it can lead to significant
> notoriety.  Best to avoid the wrong kind of attention in the long term, by
> getting comments from experts and following their advice where possible.
> That's just my personal opinion.
>        So this will continue to be interesting to see how it unfolds.
>        I think there is also a parallel with Darwin's theory of natural
> selection.  Not having read all of Darwin's works, I'd lay a bet he never
> said that his theory covered everything about evolution.  Indeed, he
> himself not only wrote a book on natural selection, but also a complete
> separate book on sexual selection.  A different mechanism, not as famous,
> as far as I know  it is still supported by evidence.  It's why male
> peacocks have such giant tails they can barely fly, and why male seals of
> many species are huge compared to females.  He recognized very well and had
> strong evidence that natural selection was not the whole story.  And it has
> been added to further and probably will continue to be added to.  So there
> is "genetic drift" which is random and in very small populations genetic
> drift can be more powerful than natural selection.  And there is punctuated
> evolution, sociobiology ("selfish gene") and probably others.  Nature is
> more complicated than any one theory, and coral reefs are especially
> diverse and complicated.  None of which proves that Darwin was wrong, and
> natural selection is still well known to be one of the major drivers of
> evolution.  And of course Wallace came to the same conclusion as Darwin on
> natural selection at the same time, their first papers were read at the
> same time, and Steven Jay Gould points out that a forester actually
> outlined natural selection in print well before both of them.  But Darwin
> spelled it out in so much detail with so much supporting evidence in his
> book "The origin of species" that he became famous and we remember him as
> the father of evolutionary theory.  By the way, there are a few
> evolutionary processes that actually follow Lamarkian evolution, even
> though he was long pilloried for an incorrect theory.  The latest is
> "methylation" of DNA, an acquired genetic character that is passed on to
> subsequent generations.  Currently a hot topic.
>       Cheers,  Doug
> On Fri, Oct 16, 2020 at 11:51 AM Douglas Fenner <
> douglasfennertassi at gmail.com> wrote:
> > or so says a new article:
> >
> > Popular piece:
> >
> > Study: Darwin's theory about coral reef atolls is fatally flawed
> >
> >
> >
> http://news.rice.edu/2020/10/12/study-darwins-theory-about-coral-reef-atolls-is-fatally-flawed-2/
> >
> > Original review:
> >
> > The origin of Modern Atolls: Challenging Darwin's Deeply Ingrained Theory
> >
> > https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-marine-122414-034137
> >
> > My thoughts, based on reading the popular article and the abstract for
> the
> > review:
> >
> > Yes, if you define an "atoll" as a ring of coral at the surface, and you
> > carefully ignore that it is on top of an accumulation of up to a mile of
> > coral reef carbonate, which is in turn on top of a two mile tall volcano
> > which all the evidence shows has indeed subsided with the ocean floor
> plate
> > as it moves across the ocean, then yes, sea level fluctuations with the
> > glaciation cycle are widely acknowledged to affect the coral reef
> > structure.  It appears that maybe the new thing in this review is that
> the
> > present ring is relatively young and built on top of the raised ring left
> > from low sea level stands when rainwater was dissolving the carbonate in
> > the center of the ring.  Actually, I don't think even that is new, though
> > their being a flat topped bank in between time may be new.  This is a
> > further embellishment on top of the Darwin theory, NOT a disproof of his
> > theory, which is heavily documented.  The argument back then was whether
> > there was a volcano under the carbonate, which drilling proved was
> correct
> > and is no longer in doubt.
> >      Perhaps by reading the entire review it will be clear that the
> review
> > isn't saying that Darwin was wrong about subsidence and a volcano being
> > under the carbonate, or that there was a sequence from fringing to
> barrier,
> > to atoll, but even the title of the review implies it is.  But of course
> > you attract a lot more attention saying that "Darwin was wrong."
> >       What do geologists think?
> > Cheers, Doug
> >
> >
> > --
> > Douglas Fenner
> > Lynker Technologies, LLC, Contractor
> > NOAA Fisheries Service
> > Pacific Islands Regional Office
> > Honolulu
> > and:
> > Coral Reef Consulting
> > PO Box 7390
> > Pago Pago, American Samoa 96799  USA
> >
> > “Don't think of it as the warmest month of August in California in the
> > last century. Think of it as one of the coolest months of August in
> > California in the next century.”
> > <
> https://nature.us17.list-manage.com/track/click?u=2c6057c528fdc6f73fa196d9d&id=38d5d14948&e=190a62d266
> >
> >
> > The toxic effects of air pollution are so bad that moving from fossil
> > fuels to clean energy would pay for itself in health-care savings and
> > productivity gains
> > <
> https://nature.us17.list-manage.com/track/click?u=2c6057c528fdc6f73fa196d9d&id=c9f70ba54f&e=190a62d266>
>> > even if climate change didn’t exist.  In the US alone, decarbonization
> > would save 1.4 MILLION lives in the US alone.  And save $700 Billion a
> > year.
> >
> >
> https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/8/12/21361498/climate-change-air-pollution-us-india-china-deaths
> >
> > "Already, more people die  <http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/hazstats.shtml
> >from
> > heat-related causes in the U.S. than from all other extreme weather
> events
> > ."
> >
> >
> https://www.npr.org/2018/07/09/624643780/phoenix-tries-to-reverse-its-silent-storm-of-heat-deaths
> >
> >
> >
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Dennis Hubbard - Emeritus Professor: Dept of Geology-Oberlin College
Oberlin OH 44074
(440) 935-4014

* "When you get on the wrong train.... every stop is the wrong stop"*
 Benjamin Stein: "*Ludes, A Ballad of the Drug and the Dream*"

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