A number of really sweet picture books have come into the library over the past couple of weeks on the topic of love. One such book, and one that stands to cause a bit of debate among readers, is Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian.
In Worm Loves Worm, two worms fall in love and decide to get married. Cricket, Beetle, Spider and the Bees all want to help out, but as they start to plan the wedding they keep tripping over details. Worms can be both male and female at the same time and Cricket wants to know who’s going to be the bride? Who’s going to be the groom? Who’s going to wear the dress? Who’s going to wear the tux? In the end, they teach Cricket that it doesn’t really matter, all that matters is worm loves worm.
The book is beautiful in all respects – two worms love each other and want to be companions for the rest of their lives (which, when you look up the lifespan of an earthworm, could rival many human marriages), and their non-hermaphroditic friends learn that being supportive and loving and creating new traditions out of old ones enriches us all. The thing is… and where the controversy lies… well… they are worms. We all know that earthworms don’t get married. Can worms actually feel emotions like love?
The book gets things right in many respects. Yes, earthworms are hermaphroditic – it’s a lonely world out there for an earthworm, and for the sake of furthering the species being both male and female really levels the odds when earthworm at long last meets earthworm. But do these worms really fall in love like humans might? As humans, we are really spectacular at anthropomorphizing our fellow animals. Children’s books and internet memes in particular feature animals whose behavior could be construed (or misconstrued) as being driven by emotion and even empathy. I was curious about whether this attribution of emotion to animals really had something to it, or if it were just horribly misguided and self-deluding. A quick search of our online databases (available through HCPL’s website) brought up some interesting results.
As it turns out, the question of whether animals feel has been around for a long time. Charles Darwin had no doubt that animals had feelings, and studied this in birds, his children, and even the pet dog. However, much of the last century of animal behavior research was preoccupied with the notion that because animals do not have consciousness, they cannot experience emotion – no your cat doesn’t really love you, it’s just cold and you are a warm body to curl up with. But within the last decade or two the idea of whether animals experience emotions has again become an active conversation. In a recent article in New Scientist magazine (a publication that’s available at HCPL) the question was asked whether invertebrates (a class of animal in which our worms find themselves, as well as crabs, lobsters, squid, and insects) feel pain or fear – which may make you think twice before you dig into that seafood dinner or swat that fly. There are people who feel strongly in either camp, but with the nature of consciousness being on the frontier of biological research, the question is far from being definitively answered.
Perhaps anthropomorphism isn’t so much about what it says about animals, but what it says about us. Despite knowing full well that earthworms don’t wear dresses or tuxes or form monogamous relationships, I was still rooting for our worms. I wanted them to have a wonderful wedding, and have a lovely little worm family, and have get-togethers with their supportive invertebrate friends Cricket, Beetle, Spider, and the Bees. If anthropomorphism can create empathy, even as we clumsily search for the right words with the best of intentions and find ourselves perplexed by the new and unfamiliar, perhaps it isn’t such a bad thing. In the end it really shouldn’t matter because worm loves worm, and so do we.
*Originally published in County Life February 2016.