It’s often easy to think of science outside of its social and historical contexts, as something pure, empirical, and incorruptible. But each drop of knowledge inevitably depends on what was uncovered and refined in the decades and centuries before it, as well as how it fits with the social and cultural opinions of its time.
Iain McCalman’s The Reef: A Passionate History recognizes that fact. Through the biographies “of around twenty extraordinary individuals” between the 18th century and today, McCalman deftly explains how our current understanding of the Great Barrier Reef – and our attempts to understand and preserve it, and our actions that undermine those goals – owes an enormous debt to those who “first” came across the reef and how they imagined and understood it. The framework for our current knowledge, McCalman shows, is highly dependent on the observations and cultural perspectives of those like Captain James Cook, who first charted part of the reef while exploring the Australian coast, even while our understanding of the reef ecosystem has significantly evolved and departed from what preceded it.
I put “first” in quotes purposefully, because obviously Cook wasn’t the first to encounter the reef; already there were numerous Aboriginal cultures interacting with the reef on a daily basis and depending on it for food and shelter from storms. But it’s often too easy to fall into the trap of looking at the history of science in a largely Eurocentric way, to imagine that because the navigators of the 17th and 18th centuries considered themselves discoverers, they were truly the first to come and the first to understand. McCalman’s timeframe – the book’s second subtitle is The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change – heightens that risk in this case. In some ways, McCalman manages to avoid the many potential traps he’s set for himself: he diligently refers to Cook and others as navigators and explorers, not as discoverers, and he takes great pains to explain the ways in which the navigators unwittingly offended native groups and set off chains of events that would lead to heightened tensions, and to describe how European expansion into Australia displaced and often destroyed native cultures.
But still, The Reef often slips back into an unchecked Eurocentric viewpoint. What may, to McCalman, seem like a subtle acknowledgement of racist colonial tendencies often reads as complete elision. In one chapter, McCalman tells the story of Ted Banfield, who in 1896 relocated to Dunk Island in order to build a cabin and escape into the picturesque. Though Banfield and his wife largely claimed the island as their own, it wasn’t wholly deserted when they arrived. There were also Aboriginals, including a man named Tom, “one of Dunk’s few living original inhabitants” who “couldn’t lay a claim to a square inch of it” but nonetheless welcomed Ted to the island and showed him around. But within sentences, McCalman refers to Tom as the Banfields’ “new servant Tom,” with no discussion of how such a reversal took place. Nor does McCalman fully acknowledge how much of Banfield’s success – his descriptions of life on Dunk Island became a “publishing sensation” – was dependent on the knowledge of his Aboriginal servants. Indeed, while indigenous knowledge and understanding of the reef is occasionally mentioned throughout The Reef, it’s always in the context of white castaways or explorers. Of the twenty or so individuals McCalman chronicles, all are European-Australian (or occasionally American).
Does this matter, particularly in a book about natural history and science? Given methods of record-keeping, it’s fair to assume that coming by historical data from the Anglo-Australian perspective is considerably easier than acquiring Aboriginal data, so in some ways it’s to be expected that The Reef takes a Eurocentric perspective. And the great strength of The Reef – the reason, despite its flaws, I find it a book entirely worth reading – is that it does honestly seek to explain the history behind the ways in which we now imagine and understand the reef, and it does actually seek to demonstrate an accurate timeline of scientific discovery. But McCalman never fully grapples with the blind spot inherent in starting with Captain Cook. That’s dangerous: it gives the reader permission to keep ignoring what has been ignored for so long.
Structuring the book as a series of biographies further exacerbates this risk: just as it can be difficult to understand the global context of our own individual lives, it can be difficult to identify the scientific and social trends beyond McCalman’s chosen characters. Still, taken as a whole, these biographies begin to hew together. As the book progresses through time, particularly as it enters the last century or so, certain recurring themes begin to crop up. In his biography of William Saville-Kent, whose 1893 illustrations of the reef’s biodiversity “made the Great Barrier Reef a place of celebration rather than notoriety,” McCalman highlights the politics of scientific study: which scientists were considered trustworthy and how arguments were framed. This resurfaces later, in a chapter about attempts to determine the geologic history of the Reef. In Banfield’s chapter, the impact of humans and commerce on biodiversity begins to crystallize: in 1921, some fifteen years after his original census of Dunk Island, Banfield noted that “Every species of bird of prey had vanished,” as had other birds, and “it was nutmeg pigeons and metallic starlings – the species most attractive to sportsmen – that had suffered the most.” McCalman also, in that chapter, begins to track the often-futile efforts to turn the reef, or parts of it, into a sanctuary, a theme that carries throughout the rest of the book.
As The Reef marches forward in time through the last third, McCalman focuses less on the navigational challenges posed by the reef and more on its science and biodiversity; accordingly, the book’s final chapters will be of greatest interest to scientifically-minded readers. His charting of the dawn and development of the Great Barrier Reef conservation movement is particularly sharp, and he keenly explains many of the challenges facing the reef going forward.
Still, although the rest of the book isn’t always directly scientific, it’s immensely helpful context to explain how we actually got to where we are now. Without understanding the cultural and racial politics of the reef’s “discovery” by European powers and its use by Anglo-Australians, it’s difficult to understand why we’ve only recently begun to realize that the reef (and the rest of the planet) actually requires attention and care. Although The Reef has its faults, it is a crisp explanation of how our priorities and understanding of this natural wonder have shifted. And as rising temperatures and acidification are already beginning to erode the coral reefs across the planet, that’s important knowledge to have as we attempt to comprehend and protect what’s left.
Elizabeth Weinberg is a novelist, essayist, and communications specialist based in Washington, DC. She is currently at work on a novel that takes place partially in the Bering Sea. For more information about her and her work, visit elizabeth-weinberg.com or follow her on Twitter at @eaweinberg.