In the 1970s few zoologists talked about Darwin’s ideas and even fewer had read the Origin of Species. His holistic approach to science was seen as naive and vaguely embarrassing – at least that is the way I remember it as an undergraudate at Edinburgh University. Exceptionally, a handful of field biologists who revered Darwin still read his books and I think I know why. They too were holistic thinkers who combined acute observation of the natural world with careful field experimentation. Darwin was their kind of scientist and as such his writing was modern, accessible and frequently right.
Darwin's style of thinking was unusually fundamental. When discussing the enigma of the extreme perfection of the human eye for instance, he remarked that several facts made him suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light. It was this back-to-basics kind of thinking which enabled him to connect so much in his mind. His was the very antithesis of the compartmentalised mind which contemporary science encourages. And as a result Darwin was one of the most creative scientists ever, and surely the most creative biologist. What have become whole subjects in academia roll off his page with alarming frequency, some in the form of single sentences. A careful read of the Origin suggests that Darwin's legacy of emerging disciplines is not yet ended.
One area that has yet to benefit from his thinking concerns our treatment of animals. Although many animals show selflessness and altruism, Darwin was highly aware that only humans show selfless behaviour towards all members of their species and also treat other species with kindness. To Darwin, this was the highest moral sense, and the equitable treatment of animals was something he was passionate about. He supported animal rights cases brought to him as a local Justice of the Peace and was involved in the campaign of anti-vivisection legislation which formed the basis of British animal experimenting legislation for over 100 years. Perhaps his example will come to shine a light in these dark waters too.