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Darwin's WormsReview - Darwin's Worms
On Life Stories and Death Stories
by Adam Phillips
Basic Books, 2000
Review by Havi Carel
May 18th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 20)

Not many books leave you with a substantial thought that lingers in your mind well after you have read them; fewer books endow you with an insight that impacts your life. Darwin's Worms is, to me, such a book. A book that tells you something about life and death, about your life and death, that makes you take a fresh look at our beginning and our end and at the relationship between the two. It is a book about death, decay and transience, a book about life and how to live it given that death, decay and transience govern life and influence the way we experience and live it. The main metaphor of the book is that of simple earthworms wriggling within the muddy soil, who, quaint and insignificant as they are, show the ingenuity and creativity of nature and evolution. Much like these worms, we wriggle and twist and digest the unappetizing dirt, only to come out the other end and ask: is that it? This question, portraying the disappointment of modern disenchanted life, is both secular and immanent, haunted by the transparent ghost of death.

The book starts out from the secular, scientific point of view shared by Darwin and Freud, whose Copernican turns made man first into an ordinary animal, one link in the food chain and a product of evolution, and then into a de-centralized and non-autonomous bundle of drives (instead of the rational and perfect creatures, made in god's image, that we would like to imagine we are). "We are more like worms than we might think, and this need not cause us shame", Phillips tells us, bringing out Darwin's lifelong fascination with these humble creatures, drawing the similarities between their practices and our own (p.52). Far from the harmonious descriptions of Aristotle and the perfectionist views of Christian thinkers such as Aquinas, this is a modern and secularized conception of human nature in which life is conflictual and ineluctably subjected to suffering. For Freud the conflict is both inherent and necessary, given the conflictual structure of the psyche, made of different agencies - id, ego, and superego - struggling against each other and with reality. For Darwin the struggle for survival, involving adaptation and permutation, but also failure and death, is the basic premise of life. Any organism must struggle against and within its environment, so here, too, conflict with other members of one's species as with other organisms and with the forces of nature itself, is inherent. We - just like other animals - are creatures who suffer, struggle, fail; and moreover, there is nothing unnatural about that. Life and nature are made of suffering, lack, frustration and insatiable and renewing desires; any notion of happiness that we can have must take this into account. We need to "make sense of our lives as bound by mortality not seduced by transcendence" in order to achieve a notion of happiness that has a realistic and achievable content (p.12).

Death, suffering and transience are the key issues explored in the book from this Darwinian-Freudian perspective. Although they are unavoidable they are also a potential source of creativity and joy. Mortality is the organizing principle of life. This makes mourning a central human interest, because our lives are always "trailed by disappointment and grief" (p.15). When Phillips turns to Freud's beautiful essay On Transience, he shows how transience is also the condition of value. Knowing that the flower will not bloom forever, that love may dissipate, and that attrition, pain and ageing will turn us into dust, is not only a depressing aspect of human existence, but also the gateway to a new form of happiness and creativity, one which is quaint, adequate and realistic, and therefore also attainable. Exchanging perfectibility for attainability is the way in which we can incorporate failure into out lives without being devastated by it, "to render ageing, accident, illness and death not alien but integral to our sense of ourselves" (p.92). How we can turn deprivation into improvisation, absence into a "pleasurably open space" is a question of how we can deal with loss, how we can mourn well, i.e. in a productive way that makes us acknowledge transience in a way that is "a release and a benefit" (p.123). Rather than shying away from pain and fearing separation and failure, Phillips claims we should realize that "sometimes we suffer most from being unwilling to suffer enough" (p.124). Freud and Darwin's great achievement was being able to "write about loss without writing about despair - without the refuge of optimism, the confidence of nihilism, or the omniscience of the tragic view" (p.127).

The book contains one chapter on Darwin and his engagement with earthworms and one chapter on Freud's work on the death drive and his aversion towards the idea of a linear, coherent biography. These two chapters are perhaps somewhat overlaiden with biographical detail which is slightly anecdotal. But the most interesting and intense reading lies, I think, in the Prologue and the Epilogue, where the issues are tied together and the substantial claims put forth. The dense albeit at times associative discussion of the impact of death on life, and of transience on value is worth reading and returning to; it teaches a valuable lesson on the intertwining of the things we wish we could separate: life and death, pain and pleasure, beauty and transience, and on accepting and even finding joy in the mysterious occurrence that is life, as biological and fallible, as forever shadowed by death.

© Havi Carel 2001

Havi Carel is a Ph.D. student at the Department of Philosophy, University of Essex, who has recently completed her thesis on the concept of death in Heidegger and Freud. She teaches philosophy at Oxford Brookes University and at the University of Essex.


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