October 13, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Darwin’s Flawed Atoll Theory Still Taught

Rice University says Darwin’s theory of the slow buildup of coral atolls is “fatally flawed.”

Study: Darwin’s theory about coral reef atolls is fatally flawed (Rice University). Darwin investigated other questions than evolution, such as the nature of barnacles, pigeons and things, but they all attempted to promote views of long ages and the gradual accumulation of small changes. His theory on coral atolls has now been criticized as “fatally flawed” – i.e., dead. Schools, however, are still teaching this dead yet “deeply ingrained” theory.

Marine geologist and oceanographer André Droxler knows Charles Darwin’s theory about atolls is incorrect. But Droxler, who’s studied coral reefs for more than 40 years, understands why Darwin’s model persists in textbooks, university lecture halls, natural science museums and Wikipedia entries.

“It’s so beautiful, so simple and pleasing that everybody still teaches it,” said Droxler, who recently retired from Rice University. “Every introductory book you can find in Earth science and marine science still has Darwin’s model. If they teach one thing about reefs or carbonates in marine science 101, they teach that model.

But they’re teaching a big lie. A lie that is pleasing is still a lie.

Droxler, a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice for 33 years, is hoping to set the record straight with a 37-page, tour de force paper about the origins of atolls. Published this month in the Annual Review of Marine Science, the paper was co-authored by Droxler and longtime collaborator Stéphan Jorry, a marine geologist and oceanographer at the French Research Institute for Exploitation of the Sea (IFREMER).

Darwin published his theory in 1842 after his Beagle voyage, 17 years before the Origin. Droxler admires Darwin’s attempt to map the atolls and come up with a hypothesis to explain them. To be sure, Droxler’s account relies on long ages, too (500,000 years), but neither Darwin nor Droxler or his colleague actually watched any atoll form.

“Cyclic changes in sea level drive atoll formation,” Droxler said. “Darwin had no concept that sea level could go up and down, because glaciation didn’t become common knowledge until the 1860s.”

Even so, Darwin would have had almost 20 years to correct his “fatally flawed” hypothesis, and yet it is still being taught in 2020. Droxler and Jorry have tossed out Darwin’s hypothesis and presented their own, more “complicated” version.

Droxler said the simplicity of Darwin’s classification system and theory could play a role in its continued appeal. A more accurate description of atoll formation has been around since the 1930s, but it is considerably more complicated and much of the evidence to support it is more recent, coming in the past 40 years from dozens of scientific and oil industry drilling expeditions as well as from the compiled record of Earth’s climate and sea level history.

One can observe shoreline positions, glacier records and ocean cores, but no observer can watch an atoll form. All scientists can do is present scenarios of historical events that they feel match the current evidence the strongest.

…but those scenarios are invariably built on a set of worldview assumptions, such as long ages.

This story offers a lesson about non-empirical values in science. Some scientists like a theory that is simple. Some like theories that are elegant. Some prefer theories that are beauty or pleasing. Some prefer theories that are epistemically modest or methodologically naturalistic. A theory can be all of these things, yet still be false.

Coral reefs in the Rangiroa Atoll, French Polynesia (DFC)

I remember seeing this theory taught in my high school biology textbook as the first thing about Darwin. And it still goes on today, after the theory was known to be wrong for some 90 years? Incredible. Truth matters over emotional attraction to “pleasing” ideas.

Incidentally, Rice University is where the father of modern creationism, Dr Henry M. Morris, Jr., taught for years. His knowledge of hydrology and hydrodynamics was pivotal in making flood geology reasonable to many people.

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