Darwin's worms

Darwin’s last book was The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations on their Habits. It’s hardly a snappy title and the subject is not obviously appealing but it was a best seller when it came out in 1881 just 6 months before Darwin died. 


Charles Darwin by Elliot & Fry. Albumen Carte de visit 1874 NPGx5933

In the Introduction to his book on worms Darwin writes: 'As I was led to keep in my study during many months pots filled with earth, I became interested in them, and wished to know how far they acted consciously, and how much mental power they displayed’

The matter of fact prose he used disguises the fact that what he writes is decidedly strange; It is eccentric, to say the least, to keep worms in pots in the study , and a desire to discover how intelligent worms are would seem bizarre to most people. Darwin though is a respected scientist and thinker and so no-one remarks on the absurdity of his words. 

Darwin subjected the worms to tests to find out if they could hear. He writes:’ they took not the least notice of the shrill notes of a penny whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them, nor did they of the deepest and loudest notes of a basoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath does not strike them.’ But, he noted that when the pots of worms were placed on the piano  ‘and the note C in the bass clef was struck, both (worms) instantly retreated into thier burrows. ‘ Various other notes also elicited a response. 

Again he makes all this sound so ordinary, like any Victorian family gathering to sing ballads around the piano. Emma was an accomplished pianist who was trained on the continent and was even said to have had lessons from Chopin. No doubt she was quite used to Charles’s eccentricities by this time and played for the worms as seriously as she would have for any other visitors. 

Under the heading Mental Qualities.he writes … 'Judging by their eagerness for certain kinds of food, they must enjoy the pleasure of eating. Their sexual passion is strong enough to overcome for a time their dread of light.'

Darwin also made a careful study of the way in which worms plugged the entrance of their burrows with leaves or stones, and came to the conclusion that this was done mainly  to shelter the animals from cold. He found that 80% of the leaves were drawn in by their tips. He notes though, that with the leaves of pine trees, which consist of two needles held together at the base, the worms almost invariably draw these into their burrows by the base. This, he notes, is the best way of doing this, if they were seized by the tips the two leaves would diverge and be hard to draw in. 

How did they do this? He writes with sober intensity: ‘This difficulty led my son Francis and myself to observe worms in confinement during several nights by the aid of a dim light.’ Francis lived with his parents with his son following the death of his wife in childbirth and no doubt he was deputed to look after his frail and elderly father during these night vigils.   There follows an account of many painstaking observations of the way worms draw different leaves and objects into their burrows. Darwin concludes that ‘worms, although standing low in the scale of organisation, possess some degree of intelligence.’

Darwin enlisted the help of many correspondents to observe how much earth worms ejected into the little heaps called castings: Dr Ernst from Caracas for instance, collected 156 castings from his courtyard, which measured on average 3 cubic centimetres. Darwin's painstaking collection of facts on all things wormish is positively nerdish, and yet he also had a powerful imagination which showed him a world in which worms showed rudimentary intelligence, eagerness and sexual passion; a world which would be totally alien to most people.

Darwin’s book also includes innumerable observations on the power of worms to bury stones; he realised that Roman buildings at Chedworth and Wroxeter, etc. were buried under tons of worm castings. Patiently, soberly, he lays the evidence before us in an attempt to help us to see the world in a radically new way. in the last chapter he writes ‘when we behold a wide, turf covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms … It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as these lowly organised creatures.’

 in this brave new world worms are powerful and important and have been largely instrumental in creating the landscapes we live in. From his celebrated eminence as a scientist he shows us a worm’s eye view of a world made by worms for worms. 

If you liked this page you may enjoy my blog on worms that live in Wimbledon, a suburb of Southwest London and home of the famous tennis championships. 

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