Thursday, March 01, 2007

From Diadema to Donald Trump: a review of "Coral" by Steve Jones

Coral – A Pessimist in Paradise
By Steve Jones
Little, Brown
ISBN 978-0-316-72938-3

Coral reefs are among the most amazing and ancient ecosystems on Earth. In barely a single human life span, humanity is destroying them. So what?, asks Caspar Henderson
“Of all the ocean’s ecosystems, none in 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 Coral from the eminent scientist and communicator Steve Jones goes some way to meeting the bill. There is a lot to learn from and enjoy this book, but in my view it has some important shortcomings and gaps too.

[About a year and a half ago I resolved to put in my two penny contribution to the Flannery challenge. There had not, as far as I could determine, been a readable book about coral reefs for non-specialists in ten years or so. Now, like buses, they are coming in a bunch, with Jones's book a year or so ahead of mine.]

Jones, a professor of genetics at University College London 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 country discovered in this book. And within its bounds, Jones leaps nimbly – like Charles Darwin with his vaulting pole on the reefs flats of Cocos-Keeling – 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 (“The big step forward made by humans or flies compared to polyps is that we have an anus: every one of us, however eminent, is a ten metre tube through which food flows, for most of the time, in one direction”) which only rarely begins to sag under the weight of literary corbels, finials and other embellishments (“The benign hypothesis promoted by the creator of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle became the foundation of a novel view of life”). For those of us who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing we like.

“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 best in a few remote places – offer strangeness 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. Although the pleasure is brief, the position ridiculous, and the expense damnable, the experience can be comparable to multiple orgasm while hearing the greatest music ever written. (I should add that as a bog standard Western male, I have only experienced single orgasms; but, hey, I can dream. I have listened to a lot of J S Bach).

Jones the evolutionary biologist cherishes the legacy of 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 scientific work punctuate this otherwise pictureless book: they are beautiful and profound, hinting the qualities of the isles.

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: 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 right action.

Prof. Jones may take issue with where I am beginning to go in that 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 for human society from coral reefs.

Our malacalogical guide has it in for romantics of co-operation in particular (he would surely come down like a hammer on the thinking, or the absence of it, in Clues from a clownfish, a recent article on openDemocracy). “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 have been 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. And last time I looked, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, hailed by Kropotkin, a Russian Prince in Bromley, as an exemplar of anarchist principles in action, was still going strong.

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. The Gaia hypothesis, co-developed with Lynn Margulis, however 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 do Lovelock and Margulis state that Gaia has intention. Indeed, they are at pains to state that it does not. If, in early 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.

An occasionally slapdash approach continues with 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 (ironically, a view he shares with Lovelock but not with most greens), 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 in that far from rotten state, 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 meets more than 20% of Danish national energy demand (in Britain the figure last time I checked was well under 2%). Meanwhile, the industry accounts for about 40% of the world export market in wind technology and contributes some 3bn Euros a year to the sizzling economy.

But my main misgiving about this book is that less than three out of two hundred and nineteen pages of continuous text are given to what, if anything, 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 cuddly liberal consensus was one Jürgen Moltmann, an octogenarian theologian from Tübingen. Sitting, glass of wine in hand, in a wing chair in the rector’s parlor of a five and a half million dollar town house owned by the Episcopalian church in one of the choicest areas of Manhattan, Professor 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 Prof. Jones, writing from his beautiful house in France afforded thanks to regular column in the Daily Telegraph, of similar complacency. Rather, in my view, Coral comes too close of fatalism about our shared global environmental crisis.

But a desperate situation is no time for despair. James Lovelock – the ne plus ultra climate gloomster – likes to compare the present situation to when Britain stood alone for more than a year against the Nazi horror. Most sane observers, including the majority of Americans, had written off the Brits. The French had predicted that perfidious Albion would have its neck wrung like a chicken within three weeks. But, as Churchill said, “Some chicken. Some neck.”

Coral reefs supply food, ecosystem services and other sources of value to at least several hundreds of millions of people. Their loss is a tragedy. A few 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, a nation of ninety million and home to perhaps the greatest marine biodiversity on earth. Battling against enormous odds and sometimes at real risk of assassination, they are making a difference for the better. A fifty-year story of rape and pillage may, ever so slowly and painfully, be turning around.

What’s the point if the reefs will die anyway within a few decades because of climate change? An answer to this comes in at least two parts. One, concern for present generations - every young child you see in a Philippine coastal village - who need the reefs. Two, the death of reefs, though probable, is not a slam dunk. As the distinguished marine scientist Nancy Knowlton told a meeting of reef scientists and managers at a meeting in Mexico late last year, “We are not interested in writing the obituary of nature”.

Jones the geneticist recognises Ovid the poet as a presiding genius of metamorphosis and transformation. But Shakespeare – both a master shape shifter and (in my view at least) a moralist – seems to be absent from his picture. The Prince of Denmark asks “what to me is this quintessence of dust?” and that is the question that faces every one of us alive, however temporarily. 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. His blog is at

[P.S. 5 March, a version of this review has now been published on openDemocracy here.]


Blogger Caspar Henderson said...

Richard Fortey reviewsCoral in the 17 March Guardian book pages:

...We briefly see, but do not get an insight into, the wonderful complexity that makes up the ecology of the coral reef, the most exuberant biological site on Earth. The potential loss of this ecosystem is portrayed in utilitarian terms: as a sink for carbon dioxide, perhaps, rather than a desperate loss of the "charms of beauty"...

3:39 pm  

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