In the 1800’s earthworms were commonly thought of as a pest. Charles Darwin, famous for formulating the mechanism of the evolution of species, overturned this incorrect idea in the last book he published before his death.
Although famous for formulating the mechanism of evolution of species (natural selection), Darwin also contributed to numerous other parts of biological knowledge. One of these was dispelling the popular idea of the 1800’s that earthworms are pests of the soil.
Darwin overturned this incorrect idea and demonstrated the beneficial role of earthworms in turning over the soil and mixing its components. He showed their role in improving soil fertility. He was very interested in agriculture and spent many hours discussing this topic with his relatives who farmed land nearby. He watched carefully the activities of earthworms in incorporating layers of burnt lime into soil by the activities of earthworms. The earthworms brought soil to the surface and gradually buried the burnt lime that had been applied at the surface. The burnt lime gradually sank below the soil surface in an undisturbed visible band.
Darwin published the results of his seminal investigations in the last book he published in 1882, one year before he died. The baook was called: “The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits”.
Darwin’s ‘earthworm’ book has been reprinted many times, although seldom as a facsimile. It is still worth reading today, although it should be remembered that he worked mainly with the species of earthworm found in his backyard at Down House, in Kent, south of London. The book can be downloaded from the internet.
Darwin C (1881). Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms with Observations. John Murray, London. Free download available from: www.gutenburg.org.