Darwin and his Worms

Darwin’s discoveries led him to doubt a higher, Divine purpose at the heart of the human enterprise and to recognise that nature (of which humanity is a part) is in a constant state of war. Nature, as he found it on his travels, was not some gentle green, romantic idyll as perhaps an English country garden might lead us to believe. Nature beneath the Shropshire idyll was a theatre of struggle, destruction, death and rebirth in which survival becomes the paramount concern of any species.

What consoled Darwin, however, was the extraordinary struggle for life that appeared everywhere to affirm, in the midst of death and decay, the apparent “will” to go on. That was characterised for Darwin by the work and uncompromising energy of the earthworm that became the focus of so much of his later writing. It was as though there was within these humble creatures an irrepressible will to continue. The will to survive is what drives all species and yet appears to be dangerously undermined or unacknowledged in humanity’s failure to take work seriously enough.

Work is what affirms life, even apparently in the lowest forms of existence like the earthworm. To try to live without work, without the sense of our lives having any useful function for the benefit of the larger whole is one the greatest causes of despair that faces people today. Whether it is a peasant farmer displaced by global economic forces or the third generation of a Scottish family in which there has never been a breadwinner, to be without work is to be without purpose. The problem of wasted lives is one of the greatest challenges facing civil society today, ask any teacher, social worker or prison officer or anyone who cares about useful, inclusive global development that does not lead to the displacement of huge numbers and the growth of urban squalor. They will tell you that it is work, a sense of being of use to others, that gives meaning to lives. The lowly earthworm taught Darwin this lesson.

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