Anna Henchman

Assistant Professor of English Literature, Boston University.

Title: “Worm Minds and Worm Work in Darwin’s Last Book”

Abstract: This paper focuses on Charles Darwin’s challenges to anthropocentrism in his final book The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms. Darwin’s 1881 book is a testament to the extraordinary work of millions of ordinary earthworms that process the turf of the English countryside. Few creatures, he claims, “have played so important a part in the history of the world.” This book marks a pivotal moment in which thinkers are exploring what Janet Browne terms the “real ancestral links between animals and mankind.” It is also, crucially, written before the popularity of behaviorism and other critiques of what was simplistically dismissed as “anthropomorphism” shut down much speculation about how animal minds resemble and differ from those of humans. Scientists are not yet scorned for considering that animals might have subjective experiences, and that there might be “any inner processes between stimulus and response.”
Darwin’s writings on worms show how much was at stake in attributing states of feeling to animals at this time. Probing distinctions between responsiveness and awareness, Darwin investigates worms’ reliance on touch and acts of decision-making. He attempts to train his readers out of anthropocentric blindnesses to either the inner experiences of individual worms or the glacial movements of continents. Focusing on earthworms’ “mental power” and muscular force, Darwin asks how topics from sentience to agriculture look different when we begin with earthworms as our model for perception, cognition, and civilization. The way that worms process and rearrange matter enables plants to grown and decaying bodies to turn back into plants. Suggesting that worm work is more effective than that of tool-wielding farmers, Darwin portrays agricultural human beings as rude arrivistes attempting to emulate the work of worms.



Bio: Anna Henchman is Assistant Professor of English at Boston University and a former Junior Fellow at Harvard’s Society of Fellows. She works on nineteenth-century British literature, especially its connections to Victorian science and conceptions of the mind. Her first book, The Starry Sky Within: Astronomy and the Reach of the Mind in Victorian literature (Oxford UP) was published earlier this year, and she’s at work on a new book entitled Tiny Creatures and the Boundaries of Being in Victorian Literature and Science. She teaches a class on “Animals and Literature Since 1800.”

Animal Consciousness: Evidence and Implications

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