Coral by Steve Jones
Steve Jones’ book is a mostly enjoyable romp through the biology and history of coral reefs and our relationship with them. I’ve enjoyed a few of the author’s other books, and he is highly respected – and rightly so. The book covers some colonial history, some human history, and details a lot of science (and some speculation) about the origin and evolution of life on Earth. It’s well written and interesting.
The author is commendably scathing on the utter mess humanity is making of the planet we share with so many other species. Towards the end of the book he details a few of the effects on coral reefs, but he doesn’t hold out much hope for them – the book is subtitled a ‘pessimist in paradise.’
I have though to mark the author down for his inaccurate hatchet job (in the space of one paragraph) on James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory, where he claims that Lovelock noted Mars’ atmosphere was just like that of the Earth before the coral reef builders got busy (ie producing oxygen). Really? But that was in the early 1960s, and Lovelock was not so definite. Then Jones claims that according to Lovelock, Earth’s “hostile atmosphere” was transformed into “the friendly skies of today.” Really? That’s what Lovelock thought and said back then? Was Lovelock so definite? Further, Lovelock apparently also believes that the Earth “evolved towards harmony under the influence of an Earth Mother.” In a second paragraph Jones claims the Gaia Theory “resembles that of ‘intelligent design’.”
Jones correctly emphasises that life has no overall strategy, ie it is not teleological, but of course Lovelock agrees with this, and proved the point as far back as the 1980s. That Jones is so cavalier with the facts and so dismissive of the Gaia Theory – which, just like the science Jones lauds, has made predictions which were subsequently proved by evidence – shows prejudice, and, worse, is anti-science. It’s a most disappointing digression. Lovelock and the Gaia Theory may not be perfect, but then again Newton wasn’t until Einstein came along.
Apart from that, this book is a good read, following the technique of taking a section within the subject area of coral and seeing where things lead.