Discovering the Life and Death of Coral: Charlie Veron, an Antipodean Darwin // Iain McCalman

May 30 2014


In July 2009, at a special lecture of the Royal Society in London, J.E.N  ‘Charlie’ Veron, Darwin medalist, famed Australian coral scientist, and discoverer of over twenty percent of the world's corals, predicted the impending extinction of the Great Barrier Reef. In this talk I would like to tell the story of how this brilliant unorthodox scientist came to this grim realization.

An adventurous field scientist like his idol and namesake Charles Darwin, ‘Charlie’ clocked up 7, 000 hours of diving while seeking to describe and map Great Barrier Reef and other world corals. Yet these observations confronted him with puzzles that would haunt him for twenty years. Living corals turned out to be far more protean than taxonomic guides compiled from inert ‘type specimens’ in leading museum collections allowed. Moreover, common species varied strangely in different habitats and regions. Early in the 1970s Charlie lit on an answer to the mystery — a controversial new theory of coral evolution that now sits alongside Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In the process, he also came to realize that world corals were under dire and imminent threat from human-driven climate change.

Charlie’s searing Harvard book of 2008, A Reef in Time. The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End, argues, too, that corals are archives of deep time, telling the stories of past extinctions and providing an early warning system of larger and potentially catastrophic global environmental changes already underway within our atmosphere and oceans. Our planet’s sixth mass extinction beckons.

Iain McCalman was born in Nyasaland in 1947, schooled in Zimbabwe and did his higher education in Australia. His last book, Darwin’s Armada (Penguin, 2009) won three prizes and was the basis of the TV series, Darwin’s Brave New World.  A former President of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, he is a Professor in history at the University of Sydney and co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. His new book, The Reef – A Passionate History, will be published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux in the USA on 20 May 2014.  He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2007 for services to history and the humanities.

This event is co-sponsored by the Franke Institute for the Humanities.