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From 2005 to 2022, the main node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies was headquartered at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland (Australia)

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The Other Coral Reef Problem: Charles Darwin and the Romance of Coral Reefs


Monday 1 September, 12:00 pm

ARC Centre of Excellence Conference Room, JCU. Video-linked to Centre for Marine Studies, UQ.
Dr Kathryn Ferguson

Kathryn investigates how places accrue various cultural meanings and different social valuations over time. Her current research examines the cultural history and social significance of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.y.


Within the western scientific community of the Nineteenth Century, the ‘coral reef problem’ was a long-standing, hotly debated, heavily invested, and highly divisive topic engaging some of the most powerful and brilliant scientific minds of the century, and was played out textually in prominent public arenas such as The Nineteenth Century and Nature.  Indeed, the most specific directions that Captain Francis Beaufort, head of the Hydrographic Office, gave for the voyage of the Beagle were for the examination of coral reefs. Very simply stated, the crux of the ‘coral reef problem’ that bedeviled nineteenth-century scientists was: how did corals, which as far, as anyone could tell, could survive only in quite shallow waters, inexplicably seem to rise from the deep ocean?

In writing about his theory of coral reef formation Charles Darwin was also faced with a second challenge.  He was writing during a time when very little was known about coral reefs and coral reef formation, but a great deal was imagined.  Scientific arguments and publications were comprehensible to a much wider range of the public than they are now, scientific reputation was not yet so tightly tied to the publication of original research, and the image of the intrepid, voyage–making naturalist had become familiar—as had the image of the romantic coral reef.  Consequently most of the information that people, including many scientific authors, had been given about coral reefs had been supplied by imaginative texts that extolled the exotic aesthetic and moral characteristics of coral reefs.   When Darwin presented his innovative theory of coral reef formation, he was writing about a subject that had captured the interest and imagination of both the scientific community and the broader public.  He was bringing science to a subject that had, for the most part, been held as the stuff of fantasy.


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