Monday, August 31, 2009

The most beautiful thing to a worm is...

Charles Darwin spent a good part of his life studying earthworms, a grand long adventure that Steve Jones has admirably described in Darwin's Island, an account of the great naturalist's home-based researches. Earthworms, like twining plants and pollinating insects, made ideal subjects for study. They were readily at hand, and -- to an insatiably curious mind like Darwin's -- endlessly interesting.

In a memorable phrase, Jones writes: "A worm is an animated intestine." It is a description that comes to mind these wet days when earthworms -- long, pink and slimy -- crawl onto the road in front of the house. They do indeed look like an excised organ that belongs inside a more complete animal, a hare, say, or a hedgehog. I suppose in the great evolutionary scheme of things we all started out as animated intestines. Eating and reproducing: Everything else is gravy.

If an earthworm is an animated intestine, then I am an embellished earthworm. String out my intestines, large and small, and they'd be nearly 28 feet long. Add the esophagus and stomach and you've got more than 30 feet of earthworm. In one end and out the other. That's the essential me. The rest is frills.

Arms and legs. Prehensile paws. A bony skeleton. Big eyes. The copious brain typical of my species. Altogether a rather attractive package for the long, pink, slimy annelid that's curled up inside.