Steve Jones

Coral : a pessimist in paradise

You may have come across coral in a piece of jewellery, or you may even have seen living coral while diving, but you probably wouldn't have thought of all of the links between coral and humans which Steve Jones describes in this new book. Indeed the book is more about looking at the world in general. Jones looks into the past, when exploring the world meant a voyage into the unknown, such as those of Captain Cook and of the Charles Darwin on the Beagle. The book starts with Jones looking at a coral brooch which came down to him from his sea-captain grandfather. Mind you, this isn't a view through rose-tinted spectacles, as Jones tells the reader of many of the problems which Cook's voyages brought to the inhabitants of the places he explored. Jones also looks to the future - now that we are able to reach all parts of the globe we are beginning to see what a mess we are making of it.

Darwin and Cocos-Keeling

In the 19th century coral reefs were something of a puzzle - how could they grow up from the sea bed when the organisms could only survive within a few feet of the surface. It was Charles Darwin, on a visit to the islands of Cocos-Keeling, who realised that this meant that they must have formed on an island which had gradually subsided. Darwin's ideas weren't accepted easily - subsidence went against the idea of the features on the Earth's surface being fixed. The resources needed to drill deep into the coral, and so demonstrate the correctness of these ideas, eventually became available the 1950's as a result of nuclear testing - an example of the pessimism of the title. This chapter goes on to tell of the distribution of corals around the globe. But as I've indicated, this book isn't just about coral, and Jones also tells us some of the history of the Cocos-Keeling islands, of which the Scottish explorer John Clunies-Ross made himself King.

Reproduction and Symbiosis

Coral can reproduce asexually rather than grow old and die, so hopeful humans have harvested and sold them as rejuvinatives. This, of course, is a threat to the continued existence of coral, and is also unlikely to do the people who get them much good. Jones points out that unregulated reproduction is more akin to cancer than to eternal youth - so there's plenty of opportunity for pessimism there - but studying related organisms such as the Hydra may help us to understand the workings of human stem cells.

Corals live as symbionts, and symbiosis is a subject which has caused quite a bit of controversy. The story seems to be that of a minority thinking of symbiosis as a central feature of life, facing up to an 'establishment' view that symbionts are the exception rather than the norm. When Beatrix Potter was young, for instance, she presented an explanation of the symbiotic nature of lichens, which was not accepted in the scientific world. Many people think that the cooperation in symbiotic organisms has a lesson for us competitive humans, even if attempts to run society on that basis don't seem to get very far. Unfortunately the lesson from corals isn't necessarily one of cooperation. It seems that, when faced with climate change or similar stresses, the symbionts of coral may go their separate ways, leading to 'bleaching' of the coral reefs, which is becoming more and more in evidence as time goes on.

Earthquakes, Epidemics and CO2

The link with coral gets rather more tenuous as the book goes on. Chapter 4 'The Empire of Chaos' looks at various disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis and storms. There's also a look at epidemics, and in particular the diseases which explorers such as Cook brought with them, and which destroyed much of the native population of places which they visited. Chapter 5 'The Maharaja's jewels' is about carbon. Carbon in the form of diamonds shows how we give value to particular objects, and this leads to those who sell them manipulating the market. Carbon in oil shows how our society has become dependent on disappearing resources, and this results in power struggles to gain control of oil supplies. And of course there's carbon in the form of CO2, which most people agree is damaging to our future prospects. Few are willing, though, to reduce output significantly. In the long term coral and similar organisms will help us out, by locking up carbon in their skeletons, but this requires thousands of years - time which we don't have.

So you can see that theres plenty of opportunity for pessimism. Jones concludes the book with a chapter on the destruction of coral reefs, on enviromental problems we are creating all over the planet, and on the uncertain future of both coral and humans.


In The Single Helix I felt that Jones' chapters were too short. Here I felt that they are too long, at 30 - 40 pages each, without anything to break them up. I can appreciate the style of essays which start with one topic but switch to a main topic which is only loosely related. However, this book doesn't have the surprise connection of such essays, rather it just seems to ramble from one thing to another. Hence I wouldn't tip it to win the 2008 Royal Society Prizes for Science Books , and I wouldn't recommend it to readers who want to learn about coral. If you like the sort of book which dips into a wide range of topics, which often have only a very tenuous link to the main subject, then this might suit you - but then you might not like its pessimistic outlook.

More Reviews of 'Coral : a pessimist in paradise'