Year of Mud and Worm Intelligence

There is a wonderful editorial in the scientific journal Nature this week entitled “Down to earth” (Nature News and Comment, Nature volume 517 issue 7535, Jan 20, 2015) about dirt, about mud about soil. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has declared this the International Year of Soils.

Soil, dirt, IS life, at least here on earth.

What is the difference between dirt and soil as positive or negative words? Just where it is relative to where we WANT it to be. When a baby “soils” her diapers, it is because we don’t LIKE to deal with shit that we use the word soil. We wish it would just be somewhere else. When we track dirt into the house, it is dirt, not soil, because we wont use it to grow stuff. Well, those of us who lived for a time with dirt floors know that is kind of arbitrary. It is about aversion and attraction based on… what to you think?

But soil, dirt is life, as basic to our embodied existence here on this planet as the sun and water. And bees. And the only thing of that bunch we are not messing up is the sun; that we are merely wasting but not using more solar energy.

Which brings me to Charles Darwin and worms. One of the first scientists to really appreciate the role of living organisms in shaping the earth, and not just the other way around, his last book written in 1882 was “Vegetable Mould and Earthworms.” Yes, he not only was at the forefront as I have detailed before in animal minds and emotions, but he was also a visionary in ecology and the very thin (one might say essentially non-existent) veil between our earth and life.

Vegetable mould is the part of the soil that is composed of organic matter derived from, or processed by, living organisms. And worms play a central role. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the world’s longest experiments is the settling of a round stone in Charles Darwin’s backyard as earthworms eat the soil form under it and shit it out elsewhere. He even documented this process at Stonehenge!

Darwin worm stone

Darwin’s worm experiment

SONY DSC

Effect of earthworms on stones at Stonehenge from the book Vegetable Mould and Earthworms (1888 edition)

But while recognizing the ecologic value of worms and dirt is all well and good, here’s a challenge I suspect most of you will be able to rise to: do you think Charles Darwin thought earthworms are intelligent? Or do you put him in a box of “scientist” who can’t possibly see that they could be sentient beings, who sees all life forms as mechanical automatons.

Well, you know from how I asked it (you did go to school, right?) what the answer is. I quote:

“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 tie their dread of light. They perhaps have a trace of social feeling, for they are not disturbed by crawling over each other’s bodies, and they sometime lie in contact… they pass the winter either singly or rolled p with others into a ball at the bottom of their burrows Although worms are so remarkably deficient in the several sense-organs, this does not proceed intelligence… we have seen that when their attention is engaged they neglect impressions to which they otherwise attended and attention indicates the presence of a mind of some kind. [comment: some level of free will as Thomas Campbell might suggest?] They are also much more easily excited at certain times than others.” [p 35]

Later in the book Darwin has 32 pages in chapter 2 on “Their Intelligence” where, as a good 19th century naturalist, he collected data on how worms chose what material they used to plug their burrows.

So while many scientists might indeed question whether worms are sentient, WE (you, me and Darwin) won’t, will we? Like Darwin, we recognize sentience when we see it, don’t we? And we are certainly big fans of dirt and worms. Our lives depend on it!

 

 

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