In September 1887 the Duke of Argyll published an article entitled ‘A great lesson’ denouncing Darwin's coral reef theory and alleging that it continued to be supported in the face of new evidence contradicting it because of the authority of Darwin's name and the status of his disciples in British science. His attack touched off a robust correspondence in The Nineteenth Century which soon spread to Nature, and in which T. H. Huxley was the chief defender both of Darwin's views and of scientific procedures. Partly this controversy revolved around the interpretation of coral reefs themselves, but partly also it sprang from the resentment of scientists at the Duke's charge that they were swayed in their judgements by other than objective scientific criteria and modes of argument. The Duke was, in effect, anticipating later interpretations of science as a social activity, but as a result of the exaggerated and polemical nature of his contributions this insight was lost sight of as the scientists defended both their methods and Darwin's views. On the substantive question of the origin of coral reefs the Duke and his supporters were later shown to be largely wrong and Darwin largely right, and the incident did nothing to advance the understanding of the reefs. Had this discussion not eclipsed the Duke's point about the nature of reasoning and judgement in science, he might have made a more lasting contribution to the understanding of science itself.

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