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The Importance of Earthworms: Darwin’s Last Manuscript

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Charles Darwin., Digital ID 1220211, New York Public LibraryCharles Darwin died 130 years ago today, leaving an intellectual legacy which has profoundly influenced the general course of Western thought. He is best known for his work On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), both of which introduced radical new ideas for the time concerning the origins of humans and all life. Darwin's last work, however, devoted itself entirely to a more down-to-earth species: the lowly earthworm.

In his final book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms (1881)L. Sambourne's satiric portrait of Darwin published in Punch, 1881.L. Sambourne's satiric portrait of Darwin published in Punch, 1881., Darwin concluded, "It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures." If the concept of evolution didn’t give Darwin enough grief from his contemporaries, this monograph on worms provoked even more ridicule. But Darwin had the last laugh: The book was a runaway best-seller. Although its title would never fly with today's publishers, the book nevertheless sold more copies than his earlier books, due largely to England's healthy obsession with gardening.

The Tower of Babel? No, one of the more elegant illustrations of worm poop (or castings) published by DarwinThe Tower of Babel? No, one of the more elegant illustrations of worm poop (or castings) published by DarwinWith the help of his children, with whom he set out early each morning (and often on rainy nights) while the ground was still cool and moist, Darwin observed and recorded the habits of the earthworm and its effect on soil formation. Darwin learned that worms literally move the earth in the process of their meanderings. Their passage through the earth aerates the soil and the natural chemistry of their guts renders soil and plant matter into fertile pellets. As a by-product of their movements, worms deposit new soil on the surface, causing whatever was on top to slowly submerge. Thus, whole monuments may be buried over a period of decades. It is estimated that for a single acre of cultivated land, earthworms move 8 tons of earth in a year, enough to produce a new layer of earth 2 inches thick, rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium.

Before the plough, the earthworm was the earth’s best tiller, as it digested earth and munched on leaves, leaving behind a rich hummus layer. Vermiculture enthusiasts will agree that worm juice (or "compost tea") collected beneath their compost bins is a superior organic fertilizing agent for their gardens.

Darwin's worm stone, with a central peg for measuring its submersion over timeDarwin's worm stone, with a central peg for measuring its submersion over timeOriginally a student of geology, Darwin was of course interested in how earthen strata transformed over geologic eras, but his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood, suggested he investigate a peculiar small-scale mystery: What made soil cover dissipate and disappear over time? Uncle Jos suspected the vanishing was achieved solely through the agency of the humble worm, and it soon became obvious that earthworms were indeed the culprit. Darwin measured the rate of burial by using his famous “worm stone” which was a stationary stone whose slow submersion was tracked and charted by Darwin and his son Horace.

NYPL has a digital version (also available to download) of an early edition of The Formation of Mould, a must-read for fans of gardening, a good example of the scientific method, and probably the most attractive pictures of worm poop you'll ever see. NYPL also has books about gardening and vermiculture (such as "Worms Eat our Garbage") for us compost-loving city folk. 

Kids, parents and teachers, celebrate Earth Day by joining the Bug Bioblitz as part of the National Environment Education Week, April 15-21, 2012.

 Fig. 1. Young worm escaping from pupa-case, Fig. 2. Earthworm, showing hooks and selled rings, Fig. 3. Anterior rings of worm, with lip, hooks, and respiratory apertures. - from burmeister, Fig. 4. Transverse section of worm. - from ditto., Digital ID 400583, New York Public Library

 

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Darwin's Theory on Earth Worms

This is an interesting blog! It seems that the earth worms functioned as a catalyst for changes in the structure of the earth. They somehow contributed to a more fertile earth. Their contribution to the environment is as useful as that of the bees. The bees pollanize plants. Without their activities the amount of fruits and vegetables being grown would diminish considerabily. Bees act as purveyors of seeds. They also make honey which is an important food, in as much as it can destroy bacteria. If someone has a serious cold, he or she can drink hot lemonade with honey and the cold would go away. If it did not go away, then the person should see a doctor, because there is a chance they have more than a cold. They might have pneumonia or a serious respiratory infection. People need to be grateful for the work that worms and bees do. These tiny creatures contribute in a large way to the survival of our universe. We also need to be grateful to Darwin!

Partial Praise for Darwin

Darwin proposed that organisms must be supported by their environments to survive - which is pretty obvious as each of us grows from one cell by getting everything we need from the environment. In terms of evolution of species, the principle is useful in describing different supports & connections of environments to organism - but science has stagnated because of it. The stagnation is to ignore the organism itself and how DNA builds anatomies from one cell in embryogenesis of any species, and from one-celled amoeba into those various species. What does the coding strand of DNA use to build different species? It uses environmental chemicals, as DNA itself is merely a sequential coded for construction using proximate chemicals. I have written a book freely available to the public at my site thehumandesign.net in PDF, which explains how species may be literal embodiments of their landscapes. This make evolution predictable - as a pre-existing chemical landscape would provide the constituents of our anatomies, and that landscape might have qualities repeated time and again when embodied as living anatomies. The chemicals and their qualities literally define anatomies, and they may be limited in scope for effective living functions, and predictable in evolution across species. My ultimate conclusion is that the human type anatomy is the most economical possible embodiment of our chemical environment, and the fact that such an anatomy has comprehensive awareness opens up a detective story tracked all the way in my book. It's new, challenging, and a hundred years overdue.

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