On Ruffling Feathers

Posted by Lisa Franzetta, ALDF's Director of Communications on April 4, 2007

While in Cambridge this past weekend for ALDF’s Future of Animal Law conference at Harvard Law School, I took some time after the event to take a trip over to Boston’s Museum of Science to see a special exhibit about the life of Charles Darwin, whose book On the Origin of Species, published nearly 150 years ago, absolutely revolutionized our understanding of how the world works and how humans, other animals, and all life forms currently or ever existing on the planet are, ultimately, all related.

I could have done without the live animal component of the exhibit (as a former New England resident myself, I can assert with 100% confidence that no Galapagos tortoise would ever choose to spend the winter in Massachusetts), but all of the memorabilia from Darwin’s travels as a young naturalist and, later, a budding theorist and visionary, were utterly fascinating–and oddly touching. Darwin’s notes and letters reveal how, after many years of collecting specimens during his round-the-world voyage about the Beagle, it was with excitement, but also unease, that he realized he was on to something Really Big. Even for the man we now credit with writing what is arguably the most pivotal work of evolutionary biology, recognizing that his vision of the world would ruffle more feathers than a whole flock of finches could be a little overwhelming.

Roaming amidst Charles Darwin’s literary and scientific relics seemed a fitting way for me to cap off a weekend spent among many people whom I regard as some of our current era’s great thinkers and visionaries, discussing the Future of Animal Law from perspectives ranging from the practical (how to run a solo practice in animal law) to the sublime (how religions influence our views on animals in society and in the law). The weekend’s panels and keynote addresses, coming soon on video to anyone who wasn’t able to join us at Harvard (stay tuned here at aldf.org for details), emphasized a few thoughts Darwin might have echoed vis-à-vis effecting a paradigm shift: it’s not always easy, or popular, to present a brand new idea to the world. Long hours and low pay are too often immediately rewarded with frustration and ridicule.

When Darwin was born, prevailing scientific opinion stated that species were fixed and unchanging entities and that humankind had no relation, no essential commonality at all, with the other animals of Earth. Just 150 years later after his seminal publication–really, it’s not that long–we know that we share 94% of our DNA with chimpanzees, our closet living relatives. Today, meanwhile, the law currently regards animals as “things” without rights or interests. This weekend’s conference was, for me, an affirmation that another pivotal change–one that will be both cultural and legal–is imminent. The energy, the innovation, and the intellect in support of a better world for animals through the legal system are unstoppable. We’re building our case against cruelty, and we’re getting stronger every day.