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The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits (sometimes shortened to Worms) is an 1881 book by Charles Darwin on earthworms. It was his last scientific book, and was published shortly before his death (see Darwin from Insectivorous Plants to Worms). Exploring earthworm behavior and ecology, it continued the theme common throughout his work that gradual changes over long periods of time can lead to large and sometimes surprising consequences.

Paper "On the Formation of Mould"

After returning from the Beagle survey expedition in October 1836, Darwin was intensively occupied with further establishing his reputation as an innovative geologist, as well as finding suitable experts to describe his natural history collections and arranging for publication of their work as the multi-volume Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Near the outset of the voyage he had planned a book on geology, and during it extracts from his letters on geology had been privately published by his tutor John Stevens Henslow. Darwin now published papers on "proofs of recent elevation on the coast of Chili", "deposits containing extinct Mammalia" and "coral formations". He also rewrote his journal to incorporate observations from his notebooks as the book now called The Voyage of the Beagle, and began brainstorming in his notebooks about transmutation of species.

Darwin’s health suffered from the pressure of work, and on 20 September 1837 having been urged by his doctors "knock off all work" he visited his home in Shrewsburymarker then went on to stay with his relatives at Maer Hallmarker, Staffordshire, home of his uncle Josiah Wedgwood. Uncle Jos pointed out an area of ground where lime and cinders spread years previously had vanished into the soil, forming layers under a top layer of loam. Jos suggested that this might have been the work of earthworms, but apparently thought that this would be of little interest to his nephew, who was working on continental scale geological problems. Actually, Charles did find it interesting and throughout his life he sustained an interest in this "unsung creature which, in its untold millions, transformed the land as the coral polyps did the tropical sea".

He returned to London on 21 October and prepared a paper on worms forming mould. The paper on the role of earthworms in soil formation was read out by Darwin at the Geological Society of London on 1 November 1837. This was an uncommonly mundane subject for the society, and his peers may have hoped to hear of something more grandiose, even seeing this paper as highlighting Darwin's growing idiosyncrasies. The leading geologist William Buckland subsequently recommended Darwin's paper for publication, praising it as "a new & important theory to explain Phenomena of universal occurrence on the surface of the Earth—in fact a new Geological Power", while rightly rejecting Darwin's suggestion that chalkland could have been formed in a similar way.

The paper appeared in the Proceedings of the Geological Society of London in 1838, and was published with a woodcut illustration in the Transactions of the Geological Society in 1840.

Renewed work on earthworms

From his brainstorming about transmutation towards the end of 1838, Darwin conceived of his theory of natural selection “by which to work”, as his “prime hobby”. His main work on the Beagle collections continued, and in 1842 he published the first of three volumes on geology, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs. He then allowed himself to write out the first “pencil sketch” of his theory. Subsequently, in September 1842, the family moved to rural Down Housemarker where he had space for experimental plant and animal breeding, and surroundings to observe nature. In December of that year he had a quantity of broken chalk spread over a part of a long established pasture field near the house, "for the sake of observing at some future period to what depth it would become buried."

In 1872 he was having disagreements with St George Mivart about The Descent of Man. Darwin cut communication with Mivart and went the less controversial direction of the lowly worm. His network of correspondents and fans responded to his interest and "earthworm anecdotes began surfacing in his mountain of mail". He had been interested in earthworms "since his first fishing days at The Mount and flirting days at Maer". Still, other work constrained him. Broken off from Descent, he had to finish his next work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

By 1876, his first grandson on the way, he felt his writing life was nearly over, and with so much unfinished. He wanted to write on earthworms "before joining them", but also had two more plant books in mind, and a revision of Fertilisation of Orchids to work on. He also began an autobiographical work intended for his family's eyes only. After turning away a request to support a controversial book on contraception (Fruits of Philosophy) - Darwin was opposed to it - he got back to work on flowers and worms. As with much of his geological and evolutionary work, worms were a case of gradual, barely noticeable changes accumulating over time into large effects. He even went on a two hour excursion to Stonehengemarker to see how its monoliths had been buried by earthworm castings.

He was occupied by worms at Downemarker in 1880, his work coming first. He had help from the family, even receiving soil samples from Abingermarker's Roman ruins. He told Vladimir Kovalevsky (his Russian translator) of slow progress with his new book.

Darwin calculated that there were 53,767 earthworms recycling away per acre. He carried out experiments indoors, where they worked the earth inside pots in a worm-littered room. He experimented with stimuli at night: strong light would send them into their burrows ("like a rabbit" said Darwin's grandson Bernard), but heat and sound had no effect. Their food preferences were also tested, raw carrots being their favourite.

An ageing Darwin was expecting to soon be down among the worms.
Darwin was fascinated by their behaviour, from enjoying "the pleasure of eating" (based on their eagerness for certain foods) to their sexual passions, "strong enough to overcome... their dread of light", even to their social feelings ("crawling over each other's bodies"). Their foraging was especially intriguing: they dragged leaves into their burrows, pulling them in the most efficient way, by their pointed end. On these semi-intelligent creatures Darwin wrote that they obtained a "notion, however rude, of the shape of an object", perhaps by feeling it out. Worms, "five or six feet" below the ground ploughed farmers fields. Darwin felt we "ought to be grateful" to these little recyclers, which he compared to "a man... born blind and deaf". He was wondering how long it would be until he would be consumed by worms himself. It would surely be his last major work; he told German translator Victor Carus "I have little strength & feel very old".

By 1881 he was unable to summon the strength for revisions and handed Worms on to Frank. His health gave him troubles; he complained to his long-time friend Hooker that he looked forward to "Down graveyard as the sweetest place on earth." Concerned about the book he had been anticipating for decades, he hurried his publisher John Murray to hasten publication of Worms even at the risk of not making a profit.

At a dinner with Edward Aveling (soon the son-in-law of Karl Marx) and other atheists, he was asked how he had turned to such an "insignificant" subject as worms, to which he replied "I have been studying their habits for forty years." As with his religious views, the old naturalist did not see things the same way as Aveling. In Darwin's view, the "insignificant" was the foundation of much greater phenomena.


Worms became available in October 1881 and sold thousands of copies in its first few weeks, despite Darwin's comment to Carus that it was "a small book of little moment". Darwin received a "laughable" number of letters containing questions, observations and ideas, even "idiotic" ones. A week's holiday with Emma in Cambridgemarker was to follow. Darwin died the next year on April 19, 1882.Charles Darwin writes "Hensen, who has published so full and interesting an account of the habits of worms [51] calculates, from the number which he found in a measured space, that there must exist 133,000 living worms in a hectare of land, or 53,767 per acre."

See also


  1. The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits


Further reading

  • "Down among the Worms", chapter 42 in

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