"We saved thirty worms, daddy!" Freyja yelled to me as we came in the house from our rainy walk around the block. The clouds hadn't done more than dribble as we strolled, stopping every few paces to pick up a worm out of the street and throw it back into the grass. My daughter imagined we were saving lives. I waffled between apathy, hoping she wouldn't notice the next one, and assisting with a pointy stick when one of them was just too damned slippery to pick up with her fingers.
"Why are there so many worms out, daddy?" She asked.
I explained what I knew about worm behavior to Freyja. I explained that just before it rains, sensing that their homes were about to flood, they wiggle up out of their holes and look for dry ground. Then, when it starts to rain they get washed out into the gutter, only to be washed down a storm drain or end up as a smear on the road. As she picked up worm number thirty one with her bare hands and tossed it into a flower bed beneath a tilted mailbox, she explained with satisfaction that she was putting them back in their homes. She was saving their lives.
It occurred to me that everything I'd just told my daughter could be completely wrong. What I told Freyja is something that someone else told me, long ago as a child. I don't even remember who, just some vague authority figure who may have heard it from their grandfather, and their grandfather before them, etc, etc on back to perhaps Martin Luther, who may have observed the phenomena of worms exiting the earth before a storm just as he was nailing a few pieces of parchment to a church door. I had no idea who had originally reported such a thing, and if it had been verified. I had no idea whether or not what I had told my daughter was true.
On top of that, I had no idea if Freyja was helping or hurting in her quest to save all worms. Do worms drown faster in wet soil than out in the streets? Is the gutter Houston compared to the Hurricane Katrina level flooding that just occurred in Wormtown? What's worse, a quick end squished beneath the passenger tire of mid-sized SUV, or the slow death by drowning that awaited any worm stuck in the mud. Did we just send thirty worms to their immediate demise, all while imagining that we were their saviors?
So I looked it up. Turns out, nobody really knows. At least not on the internet. Some science says the ground is too wet and they will return on their own. Other science says that they will dry out on the sidewalk if you don’t put them back in the grass.
How often does this happen with our attempts at altruism in general? In tampering with systems and the natural behavior of organisms, including our own species, how often do we imagine we just saved hundreds, ignorant to the fact that we may have just doomed them? How do we find out, especially when we don't have the luxury of the internet and dozens of years of research. How do we know whether our actions right now, in the moment will do any good, or worse, do harm.
There is no moral to this story. As you go through life, and as the Overton window continues to accelerate, its going to be increasingly harder to tell when to act and when to wait.
But if you think you just saved thirty worms, you’re going to be a lot happier.