2 April 2012

Mighty worms

This sentiment from Gilbert White (Letter XXXV, 1771) is often quoted:
The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the economy of Nature than the incurious are aware of, and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention, and from their numbers and fecundity.
More remarkable is the continuation, in which White's intuition broadly anticipates Darwin's research 110 years later:
Earth−worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of Nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm. For, to say nothing of half the birds, and some quadrupeds, which are almost entirely supported by them, worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, which would proceed but lamely without them, by boring, perforating, and loosening the soil, and rendering it pervious to rains and the fibres of plants, by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it, and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm−casts, which, being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass. Worms probably provide new soil for hills and slopes where the rain washes the earth away; and they affect slopes, probably to avoid being flooded. Gardeners and farmers express their detestation of worms; the former because they render their walks unsightly, and make them much work; and the latter because, as they think, worms eat their green corn. But these men would find that the earth without worms would soon become cold, hard−bound, and void of fermentation, and consequently sterile...

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