Part I: His First Observations and Presentations on Worms
Often scientists are multifaceted, discovering far more than what they are popularly known for. For us, at Nature’s Little Recyclers, the great Charles Darwin is, in fact, one such scientist. Charles Darwin was well known for his On the Origin of Species, but what many people don't know is that his longest and most dedicated work was actually the study of earthworms. His research of earthworms led to his book, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (1881), and his observations and experiments directly led to modern worm farming and vermiculture.
In the 18th century, the lowly earthworm was considered a pest and a nuisance by most farmers. They had little value and often were killed for fear they would harm crops and steal seeds. Yet other older cultures saw worms differently, such as Ancient Greece and Egypt; Aristotle called worms the “intestines of the Earth,” and Cleopatra herself called them “divine creatures" and placed a death sentence to all who would intentionally harm them. Yet, by the 18th century, the Western world had forgotten the true value of worms.
The young Darwin had become convinced that the worm was something truly valuable to the ecosystem. He observed that worms turned the soil -- in part by chewing it up and pooping it out -- and increased the fertility of the soil. One of the very first papers he presented was before the Geological Society of London in 1837 and it was about the role of earthworms in soil formation. Unfortunately, many scientists thought Darwin's paper was mundane, especially after the many exciting adventures he had been on. One scientist, though, the leading geologist William Buckland, recommended Darwin's paper for publication, praising it as "a new and important theory to explain phenomena of universal occurrence on the surface of the Earth -- in fact a new geological power.” However, Darwin's paper wasn't published until 1938 in the Proceedings of the Geological Society of London.
While Darwin would maintain an interest in the "unsung creature which, in its untold millions, transformed the land as the coral polyps did the tropical sea," he went back to his work from The Voyage of the Beagle and went on to publish his book The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs in 1842. Yet in the same year, he would move into Down House, where he would lay down chalk on a large pasture to see how long it would take to be buried by worms.
From there, Darwin, a young man and emerging scientist in England, would go on to create his best known works, including the Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Although, his keen interest in worms never faded, and he would return to his worm studies in later life. Yet, even still, the foundation of modern vermiculture began to form and would come to be one of his greatest discoveries.
Stay tuned for part II, where Darwin returns to study the worm.