Earthworms Learn More from History than People Do

By Alice Grub

In regard to the problem of severe economic inequality in an ecosystem, the common earthworm has learned more from history than people have, according to an article published in the October issue of the journal Worms & Community.

“Like people, earthworms (or night crawlers) throughout most of their history have lived in societies characterized by rigid economic hierarchies, with occasional spasms of revolution intended to topple these hierarchies,” said Dr. Anne Klodge, a prominent soil historian at the University of Iowa. “At some point in their history, though, earthworms absorbed—through their skin—the crucial lesson that an extreme concentration of wealth among a tiny and undeserving elite was bad for society. Profoundly bad, demoralizing and destabilizing.”

It’s a lesson that humans have yet to absorb, through their minds.

With strong emphasis, Klodge noted that earthworms rejected communism or any strict form of socialism in their choice of government. They instead adopted an essentially free-market system but with regulations sufficient to ensure that, where the two are in conflict, “the public good prevails over private gain.”

“Earthworms have developed an economic system that eliminates the ghastly situation—common in their medieval period—in which the top 1 percent of earthworms own roughly 40 percent of all wealth,” said Klodge. She added that earthworms, unlike people, accumulate wealth by eating soil. From the soil they extract wealth in the form of nutrients from organic matter such as leaves, roots, and insect parts.

When asked what motivated her to compare the economic systems of earthworms and people, Klodge described an incident that occurred this summer when she was conducting routine measurements of soil depth.

“Near the end of a long hot day, I thrust my shovel into the soil one last time and I struck something that felt like a big rock. I got on my knees for a closer look and, after 30 minutes of digging, I uncovered a huge vault (dated 1883) stuffed with leaves, roots, and insect parts. There was enough wealth to sustain a million earthworms for a thousand years. And yet documents inside the vault revealed that a single earthworm had owned the entire contents. Curious, I thought, how much has changed since the time of that earthworm oligarch. Then and there I decided to study how earthworms had reformed their economic system in such a way as to eliminate so ugly and outrageous a concentration of wealth.”