“Coral – A Pessimist in Paradise,” Steve Jones

Caspar Henderson
5 March 2007


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Coral - A Pessimist in Paradise

by Steve Jones

Little, Brown | March 2007 | ISBN 978-0-316-72938-3


"Of all the ocean's ecosystems, none is more diverse nor... more replete with beauty... than a coral reef; and none... is more endangered by climate change. I... am always struck by the dumb response of the audience to such shocking news. It's as if they either cannot believe it, or the inevitability of bequeathing a world without such wonders to their children puts the matter beyond comprehension."

That "dumb response" - identified by the Australian scientist Tim Flannery - is a challenge to anyone who, however foolishly, hopes to make the world a better place. One way to begin to put the matter within comprehension is through well-grounded writing that reaches a broad public, and I resolved a couple of years ago to try and make a contribution. There had not, as far as I could determine, been a readable book about coral reefs for non-specialists in about ten years.

Now, like buses, they are coming in a bunch. Beating my own book by about a year comes one this month from the well-known scientist and communicator Steve Jones. There is quite a bit to learn from and enjoy in Coral - A Pessimist in Paradise, but in my view the book has some important shortcomings and gaps.

Jones, an eminent professor of genetics at University College London who is notable for his cutting wit and strongly worded attacks on "intelligent design", has a taste for the unrelentingly grim:

"Life has seen five major extinctions since it began. The reefs have been witnesses to them all and are now horrified onlookers to the sixth. They remind us of our own fragility and of how a Garden of Eden can so easily be destroyed. Those who live upon such places, or study them, are right to feel a certain sense of gloom."

That, in a nutshell - or, maybe, a seashell - is the territory of his book. Within those bounds, Jones leaps nimbly from historical incident, to scientific idea, to mournful meditation. Many pages spark and fizz with connections and insights. And all is sustained by Jones's deadpan style, which only rarely begins to sag under the weight of pre-fabricated drolleries and other embellishments.

"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine," said the physicist Arthur Eddington, "it is stranger than we can imagine." And coral reefs - at their richest in a few remote places - offer wonders in abundance. To snorkel or dive on them is to see shapes, colours and creatures that prefigure and exceed almost anything produced by human imagination.

Jones the evolutionary biologist cherishes the legacy of Charles Darwin, whose early work on the structure and distribution of coral reefs shaped so much that came afterwards. "The process of steady change over vast time [for which he saw evidence in the formation of coral atolls] became the central element of Darwin's later and greater theory of 'descent with modification', of evolution," Jones writes. "His work on coral marked, as a result, the birth of the modern sciences of geology and biology." Jones follows the genetic clues from archaean DNA to modern humans: a story that enfolds and unfolds in the near-eternal youth achieved by Hydra, its cnidarian cousins and the few choice stem cells in every human that are currently the focus of so much controversy. Engravings of atolls from Darwin's first great work punctuate this otherwise pictureless book: they are beautiful and profound.

One of the delights, if not always the comforts, of science is that it can actually expand our capacity to imagine: there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of. Even elementary study of the intricacy of reefs and their vulnerability to human impacts can - for some - lead to engagement with questions of whether it is possible to protect them and the human communities dependent on them. These are ethical, practical and political challenges of great scope. By expanding our capacity to imagine and understand a little more about the unknown and the very strange, science plus direct experience can lead to enhanced sense of awe and even, perhaps, will to for rightful action.

Jones may take issue with where I am beginning to go in the last paragraph. "Evolution," he has written elsewhere, "is to the social sciences as statues are to birds: a convenient platform on which to deposit badly digested ideas." And in Coral he warns against drawing moral and political lessons from reef science: "to scientists neither symbiosis nor the struggle for existence has much of a message for human affairs." Philosophers and political thinkers as diverse Marx, Nietzsche and Kropotkin all went astray, he suggests, in drawing lessons from coral.

Our malacological guide has it in for romantics of co-operation in particular (he would surely censure the thinking in "Clues from a clownfish", a recent article on openDemocracy.net). "Symbiosis marks each stage in evolution," writes Jones, "but the notion of mutual aid, a joint effort to a common end, has been superseded by a sterner view: that such arrangements began with simple exploitation. Disease, parasitism and cannibalism have been around since life began." Having wrongly drawn lessons from nature, he concludes, anarchists are now consigned to the fringes of politics, "sidelined by the iron rules of greed that rule the globe".

But hold up. Only a few pages earlier we were told that neither symbiosis nor the struggle for existence in the natural world offer counsel for human affairs. Yet here we have an assertion that the "iron rule of greed" is unbroken from Diadema to ... well, to Donald Trump. Co-operation, as Jones acknowledges, allows a coral reef to lay down carbon at almost twice the rate of a rainforest, making shallow-water tropical reefs the most productive ecosystems on the planet.

Jones comes truly unstuck when he dismisses James Lovelock on the grounds that "his theory resembles that of intelligent design: the denial of evolution on the grounds that complex structures could not emerge without forethought". This is simply wrong. Lovelock unreservedly endorses Darwin's theory of descent with modification. However, the Gaia hypothesis, co-developed with Lynn Margulis, goes a step further and posits that organisms (especially micro-organisms on a global scale) interact with their geochemical context and that a kind of homeostasis is an emergent property of this interaction.

At no stage does Lovelock or Margulis suggest Gaia requires intention. Indeed, they are at pains to state that it does not. If, in earlier writing, Lovelock has used the language of intentionality, it is in the same way that Jones writes of coral being a "horrified onlooker" to human depredations.

The Gaia hypothesis is testable. Some find it wanting. Others, including leading climate-change modellers, have found it helpful. But to dismiss it on grounds that a theory of emergent homeostasis is flawed because it requires intentionality is an error akin to dismissing natural selection on the grounds that it is incompatible with the second law of thermodynamics.

A selectively slapdash approach continues with at least some of what Jones writes with regard to the challenge of climate change and how to meet it. In a passage on why wind turbines are not part of the answer to global heating, Jones writes that, "Even Denmark, long a leader in the field, has begun to abandon the devices".

The fact is that Denmark has done anything but abandon wind turbines. It is true that few new wind farms are now being built there, but this is because they have already achieved something like an optimum proportion of generating capacity for today's kind of electrical grid. Three gigawatts of wind power meet more than 20% of Danish national energy demand. Meanwhile, the industry accounts for about 40% of the world export market in wind technology and contributes some €3 billion a year to the sizzling economy.

But my biggest misgiving about this book is that fewer than three out of two-hundred nineteen pages of text are given to what can be done to save the corals reefs.

The New Yorker magazine recently published an amusing account by Rebecca Mead of "Apocalypse Not", a meeting of mainstream Christian denominations opposed to the "end times" glee of Christian fundamentalists. A dissenter from the liberal consensus was Jürgen Moltmann, a theologian from Tübingen, Germany. Moltmann advised against undue concern for the fate of the present assemblage of life on earth: "If you are mankind-centered, it's a catastrophe; but if you are life-centered it is that while one life ends, another begins."

It would be unfair to accuse Jones of similar complacency. Rather, in my view, Coral comes too close to fatalism about our shared global environmental crisis.

But a desperate situation is no time for despair. Lovelock - perhaps the ultimate gloom-monger when it comes to climate change - likes to compare the present situation to when Britain stood alone for more than a year against the Nazis. Most sane observers, including the majority of Americans, had written the Brits off. The French had predicted that England would have its neck wrung like a chicken within three weeks. As Churchill said: "Some chicken. Some neck."

Coral reefs supply food, ecosystem services and other sources of value to hundreds of millions of people. Their loss is a tragedy. Remarkable people in very different parts of the world are doing extraordinary things to tackle the many-headed beasts of destruction. I met a few of them on a recent visit to the Philippines, home to perhaps the greatest marine biodiversity on earth. Battling against enormous odds and sometimes at real risk of assassination, people are making a difference for the better.

But what's the point if the reefs will die within a few decades anyway, because of climate change? An answer to this comes in at least two parts. One, concern for present generations, who need the reefs. Two, the death of reefs, though probable, is not a done deal. As the marine scientist Nancy Knowlton told a meeting of reef scientists and managers in Mexico last year, "We are not interested in writing the obituary of nature."

Jones the scientist recognises Ovid the poet as a presiding genius of metamorphosis and transformation. But Shakespeare - both a master shape-shifter and (in my view) a moralist - seems to be absent from his picture. The Prince of Denmark asks, "What to me is this quintessence of dust?" That is the question that faces every one of us. Global heating may unleash a great tempest in the 21st century. This is exactly when we need to consider our worth. "No, my fair cousin: if we are mark'd to die, we are enow to do our country loss."

Caspar Henderson is writing a book about the future of coral reefs. This article is an edited version of one first published on his blog, at http://coralstory.blogspot.com/

* * *

About the author: Steve Jones is Professor of Genetics at University College London and the president of the Galton Institute. He delivered the BBC Reith Lectures in 1991, appears frequently on radio and television and is a regular columnist for the Daily Telegraph. His books include The Language of the Genes (1993), Almost like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated (1999), Y: the Descent of Men (2002)

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