Sarah Bezan, English, University of Alberta

“Charles Darwin’s Post-Mortem Natural History: (De)Composing the Earth Through the Action of Worms”

Charles Darwin’s final text, The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, imparts a curious narrative of the world passed through the illimitable tracts of earthworms. In the opening pages of Worms, Darwin writes that he is “led to conclude that all the vegetable mould all over the whole country has passed many times through, and will again pass many times through, the intestinal canals of worms” (4). This vegetable mould – what Darwin calls a “rich humus of great thickness” on the earth (5), is created from the humble worm’s massive appetite for dead and decaying organic materials that are pulled down into their boroughs and digested, creating a process of bioturbation that essentially re-works the very soils and sediments of the earth. Capable of metabolizing and processing a tremendous quantity of putrefying organic matter, worms have, as Darwin notes, shifted the very foundations of Downe house (his residence) and even the great stones of Stonehenge. As both archaeologists and undertakers, the worm has played, Darwin insists, “a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose” (308).

But what kind of history of the world does Darwin imagine in this final text on the worm, and what impact does this vision have for the study of natural science? As I will suggest in this talk, Darwin’s final text on the worm brings organic decomposition and vitalistic inter-species interaction to the forefront of the narrative of the natural world. Imagining the earth as a site of continuous decomposition and renewal through the fortuitous encounters between dead matter and living agents like the earthworm, I argue that Darwin’s final text advances a post-mortem natural history that, like the history of evolution, changes how we understand the constitution of the human and the distinction between life and death. Developing a new materialist natural history of living and dead human and nonhuman animal organisms, my approach to Worms proceeds from the central claim, as articulated best by Elizabeth Grosz in her book, Becoming Undone, that “the Darwinian revolution in thought disrupts and opens life to other forms of development beyond, outside, and after the human” (2-3). Thinking and unthinking (or knowing and unknowing) the environment, as this talk proposes to do, is therefore about traversing beyond origins and endings — that is, beyond where we have come from, and where we will go, or continue to go, as fleshly, material beings who live and die. Although natural science aims to tell a story from the materials of the past — from those fossils and skeletons that Jessica Mordsely calls the “terrifying, faceless, nameless, long-dead animal other”— it is important to note that these post-mortem material objects and specimens are continuously entangled in the ever-unfurling story of the earth. The catalogued objects housed in natural science museums across the globe to some extent serve as disparate and incomplete portions of a long, complicated, and continuously shifting story of the earth and of the human and nonhuman animals that live and die as its inhabitants. By acknowledging the necessarily post-mortem orientation of the discipline of natural science (that is, its attentiveness to what is past, and to what is dead), and by affirming the inter-species connections between living and dead organisms, I argue that it becomes possible to understand Worms as a text that fortifies an alternative vision of the world that is based on the vitalistic potential of death and decomposition and the innumerable possibilities for inter-species connection.

Please email Bill Hutchison ( for a copy of the paper.

Light refreshments will be served.

This event is free and open to the public. Persons with disabilities who may need assistance to attend should contact Bill Hutchison (