RECORD: Darwin, C. R. 1869. The formation of mould by worms. Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette no. 20 (15 May): 530.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed, corrected and edited by John van Wyhe 2003-8. RN2


[page] 530

The Formation of Mould by Worms.—As Mr. Fish asks me in so obliging a manner whether I continue of the same opinion as formerly in regard to the efficiency of worms in bringing up within their intestines fine soil from below, I must answer in the affirmative.1 I have made no more actual measurements, but I have watched during the last 25 years the gradual, and at last complete, disappearance of innumerable large flints on the surface of a field with very poor soil after it had been laid down as pasture. I have also purposely covered a few yards square of a grass-field with fine chalk, so as to observe the worms burrowing up through it, and leaving their castings on the surface, which were soon spread out by the rain. The Regent's Park in early autumn is a capital place to observe the wonderful amount of work effected under favourable circumstances by worms, even in the course of a week or two. My observations in Staffordshire were chiefly made on poor, sandy grass-land, and I think that Mr. Fish will find that the proportion by weight or measure of carbon in poor soil is but small, and that the decay of the Grass will account for but a small proportion of the matter successively deposited on the surface. Except when peat or peaty soil is forming, the carbon compounds seem soon to be decomposed and disappear. Judging from the quick rate at which I have proved that the surface becomes covered with fine soil, if the mere decay of the Grass were as effective as Mr. Fish thinks, many feet in thickness would be formed in the course of a few centuries—a result which would be as surprising as delightful to the dwellers on poor land, or indeed on any land, which is never overflowed by mud-bearing water. In ordinary soils the worms do not burrow down to great depths, consequently fine vegetable soil is not accumulated to any inordinate thickness. Charles Darwin, May 9.

1 David Taylor Fish (1824-1901), London gardener and botanical author writing in Gardeners' Chronicle (17 April) 1869, p. 418. Fish was referring to Darwin's views expressed in Darwin 1838 and 1840. Darwin later referred to this objection in Earthworms (1881) p. 6:

In the year 1869, Mr. Fish rejected my conclusions with respect to the part which worms have played in the formation of vegetable mould, merely on account of their assumed incapacity to do so much work. He remarks that "considering their weakness and their size, the work they are represented to have accomplished is stupendous." Here we have an instance of that inability to sum up the effects of a continually recurrent cause, which has often retarded the progress of science, as formerly in the case of geology, and more recently in that of the principle of evolution.

See Correspondence vol. 17.


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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)

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