Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An Earthworm Spoke To Me

"If worms have the power of acquiring some notion, however rude, of the shape of an object and of their burrows, as seems to be the case, they deserve to be called intelligent; for they can act in a manner as would a man under similar conditions."

-Charles Darwin, "The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms with Observations on Their Habits" (1881)

It rained in Calgary last night, and the earthworms came out.

I've seen a lot of worms in my time, having spent my first eight years of life in the temperate rain forest climate of British Columbia... and of course the ages of four to eight are The Golden Years Of Invertebrate Studies.

I encountered one particular worm last night... huge by local standards, about 25 centimetres at least in its relaxed state, and fat. This struck me as unusual, because although worms can have a natural lifespan in the wild of four to eight years one doesn't usually see nearly as many big ones here as you would in Kelowna, for example, and I always presumed this was because a prairie winter is hard for a dormant earthworm to survive.

This lead to a lot of worried amateur speculation on my part about global warming.

But even more remarkable was the performance to follow. Please refer to the above diagram. And no, I'm not an artist.

The lot slopes down to the sidewalk and has some drainage issues, as does most of the block. There is one particular step out front that is askew. It is a standard old school 30 inch by 24 inch (76 by 60 cm) cement block, with a drop of 15 centimetres.

I discovered the above described Superworm (whom I immediately dubbed "Shai-Hulud") with his front end at point number two on the diagram. Following his trail, he had emerged from the mud at point one and was headed in a straight line, roughly northwest, towards where I found him.

The worm tested the 15 cm drop by extending himself slowly downwards and feeling around. He came close to touching down, but stopped and retracted. He then slid along the edge to the north a bit and tried it again. I watched the worm repeat this process, and realized that he was following some sort of fairly simple algorithm -- "extend 30 percent of your mass this way, and if you don't find anything pull back, because you might fall otherwise" or something like that.

The rule still applied when Shai-Hulud hit the ledge at point three, which could have been confusing for him. He pressed on to the north end of the step and found the same conditions. So he proceeded along the north edge. Here the slope soon picks up and eventually I thought he'd poke his way along to the first spot he felt comfortable with and take the leap, so to speak.

However, once the worm had made three attempts and had encountered dirt at ever-increasing closeness, he then RAN (by earthworm standards) to point four on the step and climbed down from there. By my very informal calculations, point four is the closest point the worm could have lowered himself to the ground where he could still have more than 30 percent of his total mass on the ground and the rest above.

To summarize: it appears that this earthworm was able not only to hold in his blind, deaf, almost literally brainless head (hell, he doesn't even have a head!) an image of the terrain around him, but also to project the best destination based on incomplete data. He had calculated a slope as surely as a surveyor.

This sent me off to the Internet to look up "earthworm intelligence." As you might expect, there isn't a lot out there. However, I discovered that one of Charles Darwin's lesser-known works was on earthworm intelligence. It seems he was ahead of his time -- again -- with the notion that earthworms partake of a certain intelligence.

I've done some reading about animal intelligence. It's fun stuff, teaching chimps to gamble and such.

Then I got all mystical with it, wondering about whether all living things, or all things with complexity, or all things period partake of some kind of universal consciousness. By this point everyone reading this should be an adult enough to form their own opinions on such things, so I won't bore you with my beliefs. But they're pretty wacky, let me tell you.

There was some comfort in the notion of Shai-Hulud and I both feeling our way along, blessed with the gift of Life Itself, both part of a Grand Design.

Or, of course, the worm and I could simply both be deaf and blind things stumbling along without Clue-Fucking-One, except for our (probably wildly inaccurate) speculations about what the Grand Design is... or whether there is one at all.

Either way, Shai-Hulud and I have questions.

"Freude trinken alle Wesen
An den Brüsten der Natur;
Alle Guten, alle Bösen
Folgen ihrer Rosenspur.
Küsse gab sie uns und Reben,
Einen Freund, geprüft im Tod;
Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott"

(All creatures drink joy
At the breasts of nature;
All the good, all the evil
Follow her roses' trail.
Kisses gave she us, and wine,
A friend, proven unto death;
Pleasure was to the worm granted,
And the cherub stands before God.)

-Schiller, Ode To Joy

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