Darwin's animism

Don't worry, I'm not going to claim that Darwin was an animist. And I'm not interested in finding “proof” of the veracity of any religion by referring to any science.

This has more to do with earthworms and primates and humans...

What I think is most interesting about Darwin for a debate about animism is that he demonstrates human kinship with other-than-human species. Forget the tired old linear, progressive understanding of evolution. Remember that when the first humans evolved our other-than-human kin continued evolving - alongside us, parallel to us, influenced by the same wider forces, events, possibilities and barriers as us. We've all been evolving ever since - and we all continue to evolve. IF (a big if) we humans have become more intelligent, more pretty, more anything - or less stupid, less ugly, less anything - so have "all our relations", the whole community of life. So, the really significant thing about "Darwinian" evolution is not about the past, its about the present and our possible futures. It is part of our relationality. It is time to make it part of our relating.

A TV recent (Jan 2006) news report implied that scientists have just proved that humans share at least 99% of our genes with our "nearest relatives", chimpanzees. That's old news (here's one story in which the BBC noticed it). The story they failed to report properly is that on the basis of this established data of human-chimpanzee genetic kinship, scientists are embarking on an aggressive research project in search of cures for human diseases. Instead of the recognition of kinship leading to respectful encounters, it is being abused as an excuse for barbarity.

That's a brief indication of why Darwin is interesting on primates. What about earthworms?

Darwin's final book, The Formation Of Vegetable Mould Through The Action Of Worms (1881), presented the results of his research about earthworms. Its obvious from the title of the book that Darwin's chief interest in the research was in the results of earthworms' movement through soil. But a major source of the book's (perhaps short-lived) popularity, was the evidence he discovered for the intelligence and agency of earthworms. The book remains in print and is available as an etext here. But mechanistic and Cartesian fashions seem to have sidelined it among many "respectable" scientists for a while.

Put briefly, Darwin was interested in why earthworms plug the openings of their burrows (ah, perhaps its important to know that worms have burrows). But he found that another (more interesting?) question presented itself: how do they select and use different materials as plugs? He concluded that they felt the leaves - testing their shape, sharpness, britalness and so on - before dragging them underground. Earthworms make choices. As Darwin said, they show "some degree of intelligence".

Earthworms are people too.

No, I don't think Darwin said that - but it seems a reasonable conclusion that we can place his earthworm book among the resources for discussing a kind of "narrow animism".


For an excellent discussion of Darwin's work, results, conclusions, implications, validity and so on, see Eileen Crist, "The Inner Life of Earthworms: Darwin's Argument and Its Implications" in The Cognitive Animal: Empirical and Theoretical Perspectives on Animal Cognition, eds: Marc Bekoff, Colin Allen, and Gordon M. Burghardt; MIT Press, 2002; pp. 3-8.


Earlier (in 1837) Darwin had written:

“If we choose to let conjecture run wild, then animals, our fellow brethren in pain, diseases, death, suffering and famine – our slaves in the most laborious works, our companions in our amusements – they may partake our origin in one common ancestor – we may be all netted together.”
(Notebooks on Transmutation [he later talked of evoultion instead of transmutation], 1837).

(This is noted and sometimes discussed in various places in the internet and in various books including Sheehan, J. J. and Sosna, M., 1991, The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals and Machines, University of Californial Press: Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford.)

Happily, Darwin moved on from conjecture to observation, testing, theorising, arguing, demonstrating. And the point stands: we are all "netted together" in the great network of relationships that is life. The implications should be self-evident and a matter not of romanticism but of justice. Bring on "animist liberation"!!



Last updated 30 May 2006





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