A Sense of Wonder

A respect for all life and our desire to conserve it for future generations

– by David Shannon, former Chairman of LIRRF

A sense of wonder

The other “Why Donate” reasons to care for the Reef are based on its economic and scientific importance. They are sufficiently persuasive on their own, but there is also one more: our a sense of wonder and respect for all life and our desire to conserve it for future generations. This is the most compelling reason of all.

The wonder of life in the sea

In water, where gravity has less constraint, life takes wondrous forms.  Sound travels faster and further. Marine animals use it to communicate, sometimes across great distances.  Some see colours beyond our human range; have polarised vision; multiple eyes; electro-sensory perception, inbuilt sonar; ability to navigate by magnetic fields; ability to change their sex or clone themselves; athletic power from superior haemoglobin; ability to strike with the speed of a rifle bullet; intelligence to cooperate with their own and other species; an exceptional sense of smell to locate food, avoid predators, navigate and find a mate; and ability to derive energy from sunlight, sequestrate carbon, and produce exotic chemical compounds. Some have their wonder on spectacular display, but for many it is only found through scientific study.

And that’s just the animals –  there is also great diversity and wonder in marine plant species, and in the galaxies of microscopic life – the viruses, bacteria, algae, fungi and other lifeforms in the sea.

Coral reefs are super-rich ecosystems. Although only a tiny fraction of the total sea surface, they provide a habitat for a quarter of all marine species. It is estimated that there are around 2 million marine species, of which only 10% have been described by science.  We search for life on other planets.  There is still so much more to find here.

Other minds and the origin of us all

In his 2017 book, Other Minds: the octopus, the sea and the deep origins of conciousness, Peter Godfrey-Smith goes back 600 million years to find the common ancestor of octopuses and humans. It was probably a simple worm-like creature, living at a time when no organisms had made it on to land. Since then octopuses and other animals have evolved complex nervous systems, intelligence and awareness on their separate branches of the evolutionary tree. They (especially cephalopods) provide rich insight into the evolution and mysteries of our own intelligence and consciousness.

The final sub-chapter of Other Minds  begins with this observation: “The mind evolved from the sea. Water made it possible. All the early stages took place in water; the origin of life, the birth of animals, the evolution of nervous systems and brains, and the appearance of the complex bodies that make brains worth having.”  It reflects on how we humans are now stressing the oceans to the point of creating “dead zones” where no animals and little else can survive.  It concludes: “When you dive into the sea, you are diving into the origin of us all”.

The octopus is just one example. There are the countless other species of life in the sea, each wondrous in its own way. They are especially concentrated on coral reefs.

Context: the evolutionary time-scale

Life began in the primeval sea 3.8 billion years ago.  Marine organisms have been depositing the calcium carbonates that create reefs for 2.7 billion years.  Earth is the only known planet with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, generated by photosynthetic cyanobacteria in the sea 2.5 billion years ago.

Corals evolved in the Triassic period, around 250 million years ago.  That’s impressive survival.  But core samples on paleo reefs also reveal periods (sometimes thousands or millions of years) during which no living corals were present. Warming seas could cause another long hiatus.

Animals much like modern humans appeared around 2.5 million years ago. They evolved into various Homo species, including habilis, erectus, rudolfensis, ergaster, antecessor, neanderthalenisnaledi, floresiensis and more. Our own species, Homo sapiens, has existed for only 150,000 years. During the first 80,000 of these years we were not notably more intelligent than other Homo species still living in that period. Then, around 70,000 years ago, we became smarter and began to profoundly change the balance of life on our planet, taming and destroying other species to enhance our own productivity, population and economic growth. All good, at least for us, except for one inconvenient fact: our planet is finite and the relative increase of our own species can not continue forever.

Homo erectus survived almost two million years. If our current population and pollution trends continue, we Homo sapiens could become extinct much sooner. We are unlikely to be the last species of life on Earth*.  We still have the opportunity to change course, to provide our descendants with a better chance of continuing longer.

The wonder of the cosmos

The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt* described nature as a vast interconnected web.  He thought emotions and feelings should guide our response to the natural world, and turned scientific observation into poetic narrative. He recognised that beyond the necessities of our survival, we have an innate sense of curiosity and wonder about our own and other life, and how it is in tune with its biology, the seasons, the sun, the moon and tides, latitude and altitude, the profound majesty of mountains and deeps, the rich diversity of reef lagoons and the rhythms and flows of the sea.

Humboldt spoke and wrote of cosmos – the order and beauty of the universe, the opposite of chaos – long before we knew all life is driven by DNA. He inspired Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and many other scientists and conservationists.  Muir famously wrote that the clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.  A marine scientist would add “or through a coral reef”. Rachael Carson wrote that the more we focus on the wonders of the universe around us, the less taste we will have for the destruction of our species.


For an excellent overview of how our own species profoundly changed the balance of life and is continuing to do so, see Sapiens – A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari, 2011.

* For more on Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1858) and his influence, see The Invention of NatureAndrea Wulf, 2015.

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