Wednesday 11 March 2015, Anna Henchman: ‘Darwin’s Earthworms and the Sense of Touch’

Anna Henchman (Boston)

When: Wednesday 11 March 2015, 6:00 – 8:00pm

Where: Keynes Library, Birkbeck School of Arts, 46 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PD

Abstract: Darwin’s 1881 Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms is a testament to the extraordinary work of ordinary earthworms—millions of them—that process and smooth the English countryside. Darwin meticulously observes how earthworms use the primordial sense of touch to explore their worlds. This scientific work resonates with several literary challenges to human-centered ideas about perception and space in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The question of what animal senses might be like was newly urgent as it appeared that human minds had evolved from those of animals. Descent of Man (1871) proposed an actual inherited connection between animal and human forms of perception and cognition. Touch appears in the earliest forms of life and is widely distributed across species.

Darwin suggests that most of the worm’s conception of space involves its direct contact with external objects and surfaces that it moves across or through. How far up, down, over, and into space does the worm’s perception extend?  And what can the way that worms sense space tell us about how human conceptions of the world are limited by our own perceptual organs? Similar questions arise in Edwin Abbott’s 1884 Flatland, in which imaginary beings lack sensory and bodily access to a second or third dimension.

Darwin’s Worms invites us to imagine our way into sensitive bodies that encounter the world not by seeing or hearing but by sweeping those bodies across the surface of the earth.

Listen to a recording of Anna Henchman’s talk here:

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