Coral is subtitled A Pessimist in Paradise and Jones is the Prince of Pessimism. The book is in fact a memento mori for the planet and humankind as well as coral: the bleached bones of dead coral serving as the contemplated skull under Jones’s gaze.
Steve Jones is a genius who can spin seamless moralities and lugubrious commentaries on human vanity, greed and ugliness whilst all the while informing us of the life of our planet in the clearest terms. Under his gaze, the fornications of Captain Cook’s crew in Tahiti, the absurdities of economic bubbles (coral has been one such, like diamonds and tulips), Eternal Reefs Incorporated of Decatur, who will “arrange for human ashes to be cast into concrete balls and used as the foundations for new coral reefs”, are all as one.
Jones is an effortless aphorist, turning what in other hands would be dry facts concerning economics, ecology and ageing into literature: “money is the memory of past bargains”;”Gods, in general, gain immortality through celibacy rather than starvation”.
Corals are symbiotic organisms and Jones generalizes his discussion of self-interest and mutualism in nature and human economics until a whole pattern of sex and death and ageing has been woven from the forces of decay – whether of genes or reef-building animals – and the strategies that oppose them. Jones is a master essayist of an almost 17th century kind but his message is wholly of our time, which he believes to be apocalyptically geological rather than merely historical.