DISS: Coral reef formation and the sciences of earth, life, and sea, c. 1770-1952

Readers of this blog might like to know about the following recent PhD dissertation, by Alistair Sponsel, now with the Darwin Correspondence Project’s office at Harvard:

Coral reef formation and the sciences of earth, life, and sea, c. 1770-1952

Alistair W. Sponsel, Ph.D., Princeton University, 2009, 498 pages

Abstract I argue that the search for a generally-applicable theory of coral reef formation began in the 1770s and that the pursuit of this type of explanation continued to orient reef research until 1952. The most influential (and still most famous) of these theories was the one proposed by Charles Darwin after the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), drawing on his knowledge of hydrography and the work of Alexander von Humboldt. I examine the sources and arguments of this and alternative theories, up to the moment when, by general consensus, Darwin’s theory was proved correct by deep drilling on the atoll of Eniwetok [now Enewetak] in 1952. I interpret the Eniwetok drilling not as a straightforward proof of Darwin’s theory, however, but as the moment when the principle that a single theory would explain all reefs was decisively undermined.

I show that reefs could not easily be classified by the categories of animal, vegetable and mineral, and living and fossil, that oriented much of the study of science, and use my long-term case study to examine the arrangements and re-arrangements of scientific disciplines with respect to these categories. By examining the different practical approaches to studying reef formation, moreover, I show how new “ways of knowing” were integrated with older ones in a continuous tradition of inquiry.

This dissertation analyzes the theories of reef and atoll formation presented by Johann Reinhold Forster on Captain James Cook’s second Pacific voyage, Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, James Dwight Dana of the United States Exploring Expedition, John Murray of the British Challenger expedition, and Americans Alexander Agassiz, Alfred Goldsborough Mayor, Thomas Wayland Vaughan, William Morris Davis, Reginald Aldworth Daly, and many more. The narrative culminates in work done at Bikini Atoll during Operation Crossroads (1946) and the Bikini Scientific Resurvey (1947) by Harry Ladd, Joshua Tracey, Jr., and Roger Revelle, followed by the drilling at Eniwetok. I trace the role of coral reef science in the development and practice of the scientific disciplines of natural history, natural philosophy, zoology, geology, biology, geomorphology, physical geography or physiography, geophysics, and ecology.


3 thoughts on “DISS: Coral reef formation and the sciences of earth, life, and sea, c. 1770-1952

  1. Pingback: VISUALS & REPRESENTATIONS: Giant’s Shoulders #28 « From the Hands of Quacks

  2. Is there an online version or copy of the diss. or the papers by Sponsel, I would be very interested in the topic – I tried to find contact informations to the author but didn´t succeed

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