Drilling for Darwin

By Michael Kew

Funafuti Atoll, Tuvalu. Photo: Kew.

In the late 19th century, flak spawned between Darwinists and those who supported oceanographer John Murray, a Scot who thought atolls grew from shallow sandbanks on the ocean floor. Among his acolytes was a Swiss-born American scientist/copper baron named Alexander Agassiz, who funded expeditions to study coral reefs globally to support Murray’s theory and to denounce Charles Darwin.

In an 1881 letter to Agassiz, Darwin claimed the dispute could be solved by drilling 150 to 180 meters into an atoll. If volcanic rock and traces of shallow-water organisms were found beneath the atoll, Darwin’s theory would stand. If a thin coral crust over sand was found, Murray’s theory would triumph.

After years of talk, England decided to investigate, and in 1896 a Royal Society expedition bore into Funafuti Atoll in Tuvalu (then called the Ellice Islands, a British colony). They were only able to drill 30 meters down, so the mission was a bust.

A year later, another Royal Society crew reached 210 meters—deeper than Darwin suggested to Agassiz—but the crew found nothing but coral. Apparently, Darwin had underestimated atoll thickness.

The Royal Society’s third and final attempt in 1898 also proved nothing despite boring to 340 meters. Technology could only drill so deep, and the Society team couldn’t prove the depth of Funafuti’s coral or whether basalt or traces of shallow-water organisms could be found. Darwin’s theory held firm.

It wasn’t until 1950 that modern technology and a research team for the U.S. Geological Survey stepped in, working with the U.S. Department of Defense in the Marshall Islands amid the nuclear arms testing done there by the Atomic Energy Commission and the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory.

Drilled into Enewetak Atoll were three deep holes. The first, in 1951, was to a depth of 390 meters and ended in lower Miocene rocks; the second, in 1952, was to 1,411 meters, and the third (also in 1952) was to 1,287 meters. The latter were the first to reach the basement rock beneath an atoll, proving that the foundation of Enewetak is a basaltic volcano rising less than four kilometers from the ocean floor.

The steep underwater slopes of atolls in the Marshalls also bagged proof for Darwin’s theory. In 1950, at depths of 1,830 to 3,675 meters, basaltic rocks were dredged from the slopes of Bikini Atoll. In 1952, black basaltic rock was collected 2,000 meters offshore Wotje Atoll at a depth of 1,446 meters, and west of Ailuk Atoll, at a depth of 2,486 meters.

The core samples contained coral fossils that could only have grown in shallow waters—evidence that Enewetak’s coral reefs had begun to grow during the Eocene epoch, and for 30 million years they climbed sinking volcanoes, thickening as the lava settled. Additionally, shallow-water organisms were dredged from the top of guyots (underwater volcanic mountains).

Back in England—vindicated but underground in the nave of Westminster Abbey—surely Darwin was smiling.

Marshall Islands. Photo: Kew.