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Father and son who challenged Darwin

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Alexander AgassizAlexander Emmanuel Rodolphe Agassiz was born 175 years ago on 17 December 1835 in Switzerland. His parents later separated and after his mother’s death in 1848 Alexander joined his father Louis in America.

Although Alexander was to become one of America’s richest men while making important contributions to systematic zoology and oceanography, he was overshadowed for much of his life by his father and, like him, became embroiled in controversy by challenging Charles Darwin.

Louis was a palaeontologist, the first to classify fossil fish and popularise Ice Age theory. He taught at Harvard and founded its museum of comparative zoology. He was an innovative and charismatic lecturer and an indefatigable fund-raiser but also a committed creationist. His beliefs led him to wage a bitter war against Charles Darwin during which he lost much of his scientific credibility.

Meanwhile, Alexander studied engineering and zoology at Harvard. He made his fortune by turning an ailing copper mine in Michigan into one of the most productive in the world. Then in 1876 he was invited to help correlate the mass of data collected during the three-and-a-half-year Challenger expedition, which had shown for the first time that the sea floor was not flat and barren but had ridges and even mid-ocean mountains, and abundant life even at great depth.

Working with John Murray, one of Challenger’s scientists, Alexander postulated that layers of dead plankton and the skeletal remains of marine organisms could raise underwater platforms near enough to the surface to allow coral to grow. Thus reef formation was not dependent on a sinking land mass — a direct challenge to Darwin’s theory published in 1836 shortly after his return from the Beagle expedition.

Darwin described three types of coral reef: a fringing reef formed along the shore of a land mass in shallow tropical seas; a barrier reef appeared when the land mass subsided as the coral grew upwards and outwards; then, as the land mass sank below the sea, the reef became an atoll.

Having witnessed the destruction of his father’s career, Alexander hesitated to attack Darwin directly. He spent the next 30 years travelling more than 300,000 miles obsessively searching every known coral reef for evidence to support his challenge. Although he never published his findings, the debate was continued by his supporters for 40 years after his death at sea on 27 March 1910.

Then in 1950, shortly before America tested atom bombs on Eniwetok (Bikini) Atoll in the Marshall Islands, deep holes were bored into the coral reef. Core samples were collected down to the volcanic basalt 4,200ft below sea level on which the reef had originated. Dating fossils in the bottom layers proved the reef had been growing for over 30 million years on the subsiding volcano. Further drilling on other reefs around the world confirmed the Darwinian model.

A small plaque was attached to Bikini Atoll. It read simply: “Darwin was right.”

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