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Book Review   |    
Darwin's Worms
D. Ray Freebury, M.D.
Psychiatric Services 2001; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.52.4.538
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by Adam Phillips; New York, Basic Books, 2000, 148 pages, $20

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This little book is an ode to two scientists, born in the 19th century, whose contributions revolutionized the way humankind thinks about life. Adam Phillips, a child psychotherapist, is writing about Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud. As is always the case, discoveries that undermine traditional ways of thinking are met with violent opposition, and so it was with Darwin and Freud. But this book is not about their struggles with opposition or the fact that their views seemed to excommunicate God. Rather it is an examination of how each of these extraordinary minds saw death as integral to life, loss as the mother of invention, and destruction as conserving life.

The prologue establishes that, in nature, suffering is a fact of life. However, Darwin and Freud were pessimists only when compared with purveyors of earlier forms of optimism such as redemption or the perfectibility of man. The second section recounts Darwin's lifelong interest in the lowly earthworm. Here, as in many passages in the book, Phillips' philosophical yet lyrical style is lightened by his wry humor. In describing how the earth is reborn and reborn again as a result of the passage through the bodies of worms, he says, "Darwin has replaced a creation myth with a secular maintenance myth." Phillips suggests that what fired Darwin's speculative imagination was the paradoxical fact that in the case of the earthworm's work, conservation is in the undermining, and destruction conserves life.

Freud, who is the subject of the third section of the book, was also interested in how destruction conserves life. In discussing Freud's lifelong aversion to biographers, the author suggests that if we view Freud's writing as autobiography set to theory, then we must ask what kind of object of desire was death for Freud. In the 1920s Freud introduced the notion of a death instinct to better explain how people actively, if unwittingly, take pleasure from undoing their lives. Philips suggests that for Freud, "death represented an object of passionate desire; the lover who will ultimately not refuse us, and yet who takes everyone."

In the epilogue the author states that for both Darwin and Freud, the idea of death saves us from the idea that there is anything to be saved from. If we are not deluded by the wish for immortality, transience does not diminish us. "They ask us," Phillips says, "to believe in the permanence of change and uncertainty; that the only life is the life of the body, so that death in whatever form it takes is a piece of life."

This book about life and death stories is not for the squeamish, yet it is an enjoyable read. Darwin's Worms will be appreciated by readers who share the author's philosophical bent, but not by those who are looking for something that will be clinically useful.

Dr. Freebury is director of the Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

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