On his return to England, Darwin appears to have been greatly surprised at the amount of interest that his new theory excited. Urged by Lyell, he read to the Geological Society a paper on the subject, as we have seen, with as little delay as possible, but this paper was "withdrawn by permission of the Council." An abstract of three pages however appeared in the "Proceedings of the Geological Society". (Vol. II. pages 552-554 (May 31, 1837).) A full account of the observations and the theory was given in the "Journal" (1839) in the 40 pages devoted to Keeling Island in particular and to Coral formations generally. ("Journal (1st edition), pages 439-69.)
It will be readily understood what an amount of labour the book on Coral reefs cost Darwin when we reflect on the number of charts, sailing directions, narratives of voyages and other works which, with the friendly assistance of the authorities at the Admiralty, he had to consult before he could draw up his sketch of the nature and distribution of the reefs, and this was necessary before the theory, in all its important bearings, could be clearly enunciated. Very pleasing is it to read how Darwin, although arriving at a different conclusion to Lyell, shows, by quoting a very suggestive passage in the "Principles" (1st edition Vol. II. page 296.), how the latter only just missed the true solution. This passage is cited, both in the "Journal" and the volume on Coral-reefs. Lyell, as we have seen, received the new theory not merely ungrudgingly, but with the utmost enthusiasm.
In 1849 Darwin was gratified by receiving the support of Dana, after his prolonged investigation in connection with the U.S. Exploring Expedition ("M.L." II. pages 226-8.), and in 1874 he prepared a second edition of his book, in which some objections which had been raised to the theory were answered. A third edition, edited by Professor Bonney, appeared in 1880, and a fourth (a reprint of the first edition, with introduction by myself) in 1890.
Although Professor Semper, in his account of the Pelew Islands, had suggested difficulties in the acceptance of Darwin's theory, it was not till after the return of the "Challenger" expedition in 1875 that a rival theory was propounded, and somewhat heated discussions were raised as to the respective merits of the two theories. While geologists have, nearly without exception, strongly supported Darwin's views, the notes of dissent have come almost entirely from zoologists. At the height of the controversy unfounded charges of unfairness were made against Darwin's supporters and the authorities of the Geological Society, but this unpleasant subject has been disposed of, once for all, by Huxley. ("Essays upon some Controverted Questions", London, 1892, pages 314-328 and 623- 625.)
Darwin's final and very characteristic utterance on the coral-reef controversy is found in a letter which he wrote to Professor Alexander Agassiz, May 5th, 1881: less than a year before his death: "If I am wrong, the sooner I am knocked on the head and annihilated so much the better. It still seems to me a marvellous thing that there should not have been much, and long-continued, subsidence in the beds of the great oceans. I wish that some doubly rich millionaire would take it into his head to have borings made in some of the Pacific and Indian atolls, and bring home cores for slicing from a depth of 500 or 600 feet." ("L.L." III. page 184.)
Though the "doubly rich millionaire" has not been forthcoming, the energy, in England, of Professor Sollas, and in New South Wales of Professor Anderson Stuart served to set on foot a project, which, aided at first by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and afterwards taken up jointly by the Royal Society, the New South Wales Government, and the Admiralty, has led to the most definite and conclusive results.
The Committee appointed by the Royal Society to carry out the undertaking included representatives of all the views that had been put forward on the subject. The place for the experiment was, with the consent of every member of the Committee, selected by the late Admiral Sir W.J. Wharton--who was not himself an adherent of Darwin's views--and no one has ventured to suggest that his selection, the splendid atoll of Funafuti, was not a most judicious one.
By the pluck and perseverance of Professor Sollas in the preliminary expedition, and of Professor T. Edgeworth David and his pupils, in subsequent investigations of the island, the rather difficult piece of work was brought to a highly satisfactory conclusion. The New South Wales Government lent boring apparatus and workmen, and the Admiralty carried the expedition to its destination in a surveying ship which, under Captain (now Admiral) A. Mostyn Field, made the most complete survey of the atoll and its surrounding seas that has ever been undertaken in the case of a coral formation.
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