Aug162009
Reef Madness
Written by Ava

From potential doctor to...reefer? Well, not exactly.  But David Dobbs' knowledge in science, medicine, and neurology does come in pretty handy when he writes Neuron Culture, an environmental blog turned scientific because of Dobbs' background in medicine. And yet he freely writes on all topics to satiate his own curiousity.

But it's his articles and books on fisheries, reef genesis, and marine biology that really get our temperatures rising--and Dobbs is there to keep us waiting with bated breath for his next big thing.

Dobbs has already written two books that have become classics for The Reef Tank.  The Great Gulf, about fish populations, follows arguments about everything from fish regulations to counting fish, while Reef Madness, gives us the inside scoop on reef genesis. We can't get our hands off both. 

We suggest you pick both up today and check out his official website.   In the mean time, get your fill of David Dobbs below in our special interview with him here!

What is your background in science? Any specific background in marine biology or something related?

I came to science as a writer rather than a student — though I did get an early indoctrination at Houston's DeBakey High School for Health Professions, where about half the curriculum was in health sciences. (I was thinking I wanted to be a doctor.) I entered Oberlin College as a physics major, but calculus convinced me to become an English major instead. A circuitous path led me to science about 15 years later, when I began researching The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World's Greatest Fishery. I approached it first as an environmental story but quickly discovered that the most interesting part of the argument over fishing regulations in New England's wrecked cod fishery was an argument over how to count fish. 

How did you become a journalist and why do you choose to write about science, medicine, education, etc.?

For a few years after college I just wrote fiction while holding down day jobs. I discovered the pleasures of nonfiction when I wrote a movie review (of Silkwood) for a local paper, now defunct, in Ithaca, NY. I still like that review. I liked getting the check, too, even though it was only $75.

For about 5 years after that I wrote mainly on environmental subjects. But as noted above, the environmental soon segued into the scientific. And my educational and family background in medicine (father a surgeon, mother a psychiatrist, a brother who's now an ER and disaster-response doc) made it natural to return to medicine issues as well.

I freelanced the whole time, which is not an approach I'd necessarily recommend. 

What have you written about marine biology, marine life, marine conservation, etc.?

Two books and a handful of articles. The books are The Great Gulf, already mentioned, and Reef Madness. Both examine arguments about natural phenomena — fish populations in The Great Gulf, reef genesis in Reef Madness — that are really arguments about how to do science. One involved spending a lot of time at sea; the other, a lot of time in libraries and archives. I loved all of it.

One of the most fun things I did -- which anyone can do -- is to serve as a volunteer scientist on the 12-day stock-assessment cruises that the National Marine Fisheries Service runs out of Woods Hole (and other places). These cruises, conducted since 1963, constitute one of science's longest-running wildlife censuses. (You can see the results for cod here.  You work pretty hard -- 6 hours on, 6 off, around the clock, for 12 days -- but the experience is incomparable, the work (identifying the fish caught in the ship's trawl nets and measure, weighing, and analyzing the stomach contents of some of them) interesting; and the food plentiful and damned good. (best if you like fish.) Info on volunteering is here. You can also see a Power Point on the experience and, perhaps most helpful, a manual for cruise volunteers, which describes the experience more thoroughly.

I am disappointed to see that the new ship, the Henry Bigelow, has satellite TV in its staterooms.

I simply cannot tell you how fun this was. Anyone with any interest in marine biology would love these cruises. (Though of reefs you will see none.)

Ah! I just discovered a crewmate from one of those cruises, fellow volunteer scientists Joseph Kunkel, uploaded to Amazon a photo of me holding a goosefish. Wouldn't want to leave that out:

Why did you choose to call your blog, Neuron Culture when you don’t always focus on neuroscience?

At the time, I was writing mostly on neuroscience, which offers only a partial explanation. But the name is meant to signal that neurons would show up often, and also that our culture is increasingly seen through a neuroscientific lens. Ian Frazier's Saturday, for instance, is among other things a take-off on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (a Saturday in London, though with a very different sort of party at day's end). Only Frazier replaces Woolf's stream-of-consciousness, which was the mode of thought and narrative and engagement thought (at least much by the literary intelligentsia in Europe) most relevant in in the wake of WWI, with a perceptual filter increasingly dominant today, which is that of neuroscience.

That said, you're right: "Neuron Culture" leaves out a lot of territory I cover in my blog. In blogdom as in writing in general, specialization is said to be the best route to popularity and success. My curiosity e'er runs out of bounds. 

You’ve written three books, all about some aspect of nature.  Why haven’t you written a book on neuroscience yet? Why do you choose to focus on nature and science and why two books on marine biology-related topics?

Why no book on neuroscience yet? Partly because I'm slow. Partly because my magazine work the last 5 years has kept me quite busy and satisfied. Partly because I've not <em>quite</em> found -- almost, many times, but not quite -- the neuroscientific subject that really lit me up. I like science, but I also like, especially in books, to have a subject in which you can stand back and watch science wrestle with internal questions about its methodology and assumptions and principles, and I've not quite found the right topic or story within neuroscience that has all that going on in a way that seems amenable to a book. (Or, at least, amenable to a book by me.)

That said, however,  the topic of article I just wrote, to be published in The Atlantic this November (the writing of which much delayed my answers to this questionnaire!), seems to offer much of that, and I may well try to do a book on it.

What is the fishery struggle described to in your book The Great Gulf?

Two key struggles there. One is the attempt to reverse the decline of the New England groundfishery, which was badly overfished in the 1980s (not for the first time). The other struggle, which was making recovery of the fishery impossible, was an argument between fishermen and scientists over how to count the fish in question. This was a vital issue, as regulations were driven by stock assessments — and the fishermen didn't have faith in the government's stock assessments. The government was offering one of science's  longest running and most carefully conducted wildlife surveys — and indeed it was diligently done, and a a model of mainstream fishery science.

But the fisherman felt that survey left out a lot of crucial information. They felt it ignored patterns of fish movement and migration that the fishermen knew well, because they structured their fishing schedules and strategies around them. And they mounted a pretty good argument that the government's division of New England groundfish stocks into two geographic areas — Georges Bank stocks here, Gulf of Maine stock there — might be miscounting fish because the true populations didn't observe those geographical boundaries.

It was also an argument over whether fine-grained, "anecdotal" information about fisheries, such as that possessed in massive amounts by the fishermen, would be integrated into the sort of broad-scale view apparently needed for stock assessments.  

To me, it was clear that both the best scientists and the best fishermen knew immense amounts about the fisheries and the ocean -- and that the failure to integrate and reconcile their bodies of knowledge was not just crippling the regulatory efforts but needlessly impoverishing the science.

The book — and similar critiques made by others — made a difference. Since the book was published, NMFS has launched quite a few cooperative research projects in which fishermen and scientists work together to answer the sorts of questions that fishermen had complained were being overlooked.

You wrote a book about the meaning of coral in Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Why is coral so important to evolution and sum up what is said in the book about it.

Oh boy. I could write a book about this.

Short short version, though: Coral isn't directly important to Darwin's theory of evolution. But before Darwin hatched his evolutionary theory, he conceptualized, drafted, and published a theory about the genesis of coral reefs that in many ways anticipated his theory of evolution. He published that theory practically as soon as he returned from the Beagle voyage, while his evolutionary theory wouldn't see print for another 23 years. His own coral theory anticipated his theory of evolution conceptually and, if you would, psychologically. And it would spark an argument that echoed and paralleled the argument over his theory of evolution.

The key question his coral theory (and other coral theories)  tried to answer was this: How did forms that could only be generated in shallow water come to stand atop platforms that rose from the greatest depths of the Pacific? How did those tall platforms get there? Several people before Darwin had tried to answer that, but none did so satisfactorily.

Darwin, however, came up with, and in 1837 published, a very clever and powerful answer: The platforms didn't rise to the surface; rather, the coral grew atop — and ever added onto — the high points of sinking islands or land masses. This subsidence theory explained most of the various forms coral reefs took, and soon became the standard explanation. And, conceptually, it was very much the forerunner of Darwin's theory of evolution, for it described a variety of forms as the results of incremental change through time and in reaction to a changing environment (the sinking of the island).

Good theory. But Darwin had hatched this theory before he ever saw a reef and published it when he'd seen just a few. He worked mostly from charts. And while the theory explained a lot, many observations of coral reefs in the years that followed found features his theory couldn't readily explain. It came into increasing doubt. And in the the 1870s, one of the world's leading oceanographers, Alexander Agassiz, decided Darwin's theory was bunk — and that he would survey all the world's reefs to gather the evidence to prove it was bunk.

The controversy that ensued echoed in many ways the squabble over Darwin's theory of evolution. How much evidence did you need to really prove a theory right? Was an offered mechanism legitimate if it relied on another mechanism (genetics in the case of natural selection, subsidence in the case of coral reefs) that itself was effectively hidden?

This parallel story is all the richer because Darwin's antagonist in the coral reef debate, Alexander, was the son of Louis Agassiz, who was the most prominent U.S. opponent of Darwin's theory of evolution in the 1860s. Alexander accepted the theory of evolution. But he'd seen his father's career destroyed by it, and that history inevitably came into play in his attack on Darwin's coral reef theory.

From your research, how important is marine biology in Charles Darwin’s theory?


Marine biology was important — those critters building those reefs — but geology far more so. Darwin was more geologist than biologist in his formative years (he took 2000 pages of notes on geology during the Beagle cruise, but only 400 on zoology), and his recognition of incremental change of geological forms anticipated and led to his recognition of incremental change in biological forms. 

For a fuller taste, you can read the book's introduction.

What is your opinion on the issues facing the marine world today? Pollution, ocean acidification, climate change,  lack of water, over-fishing, etc.

Quite a mess, no? Much to be discouraged about. But places to find encouragement, as well.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

The book proposal previously mentioned (probably). A feature for National Geographic about ... well, let's call it life-stage behavior. Some other magazine pieces I'm pitching concerning psychology, matters military, robotics, psychological hardiness, the history of medicine, and an old family story involving, among other things, a recovered body, adultery, anti-aircraft fire, ashes, and a coral reef in Hawaii.

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