Discovering Darwin’s passion for… earthworms?

by Cheyenne Tait – A couple years ago, on the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday, I was reading various articles celebrating his position as the founding father of evolutionary biology. It was in one article [NPR, 2009] that I found out that his last published work was The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits [1885]. A book that sold surprisingly well in its own time, it has since fallen into relative obscurity.

I had heard of and read The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species (who hasn’t?), but a book of observations of worms’ habits does not have that distinguished ring to it. Struck by curiosity, I found the book, for free, on Amazon. In spite of the classes I had the next morning, I read long into the night, shaking my head and chuckling to myself.

Perhaps it was the late hour, or perhaps it’s the fact that Darwin is such a revered figure in evolutionary biology, but some statements just made me laugh. For example: “They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them.” And another example: “Nevertheless, worms do not invariably leave their burrows when the ground is made to tremble, as I know by having beaten it with a spade, but perhaps it was beaten too violently.”

Can you see the great and distinguished Charles Darwin, father of evolutionary biology, shouting at a pot of worms, so close that he had to be careful that he didn’t breathe on them and startle them?   Or Darwin beating the ground “too violently” with a spade, in an attempt to get the worms to emerge in response to the vibrations? It’s almost absurd, and at the time, cartoonists made parodies of the famous, dignified, bearded Charles Darwin, seated in front of a worm like a snake charmer [Punch magazine, accessed at darwin-online.org.uk, referenced below].

I told everyone I knew about this book for at least a week, through social media, in my lab, and over the phone. I read the best parts of it aloud. A rare few seemed to be as charmed as I was. Most people feigned a polite interest. Several of my friends outside of science clearly thought I had finally lost my mind.

I don’t know why the discovery of this book is so memorable for me. I was partly fascinated by the fact that, back in the 1890’s, science like this, a naturalist’s personal observations, could get published – mostly because I was in the midst of writing the first rough draft of my own scientific paper. The language of the book was also so different from the scientific journals I’d been dissecting in my classes. It was not the dry, passive, detached voice we currently expect from science writing. You can see it from the two quotations above: Darwin, the scientist, and his excited participation is undeniably part of his results. You cannot remove his breath, his yells, his spade from his experiments. Darwin’s philosophies come through as well, with his references to worms as such lowly, overlooked creatures nevertheless capable of changing the face of the world with their action of eating dead leaves and gradually raising the level of the soil, slow and study just like the force of natural selection.

It is actually bioturbation, the disturbance of the soil by living organisms which can effect larger geological trends, which is the major scientific takeaway from this work. And yet the behavioral experiments are what stick with me the most, now. In my opinion, more so than anything else, this book offers a different side of Darwin, painting him as a much more relatable scientist and person. You see him doing these experiments – he’s holding the spade, shouting at the worms, playing the piano such that the worms retreat into their burrows, peering in the worms’ burrows to see how closely they rest to the surface and noting that he can only just see the top of their heads. His son helping with experiments, such as at night in the rain with a lantern, counting how many worms are around, often makes appearances in the book. Darwin, a naturalist fascinated by something as simple as a worm, making notes on their habits over decades, is the scientist I wish I could be.

It’s also a bit more attainable than Darwin the genius, who revolutionized the field of biology with On the Origin of Species. There’s the best part of it then – that both Darwins are the same, singular, fascinating mind.

Citations

NPR (2009). Darwin’s Earthworm Experiments Broke New Ground. Accessed at <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100627614&gt;

Darwin, C. (1885). The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits. Appleton.

Punch Magazine illustration. Accessed at <http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=A206&viewtype=image&pageseq=1&gt;

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