International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

The Cambridge Companion to the Origin of Species

edited by Michael Ruse , Robert J. Richards

Introductory Essay by Brian Heap

Understandably, claims that the Origin of Species is the most important book of science ever written resounded in 2009 - 150 years after its first edition was published and the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth. This timely Companion consists of eighteen perspectives on the historic book, arranged to welcome new readers to the subject and to stimulate those who are familiar with the story. The Companion, say the editors, is about the book rather than the man, though, unsurprisingly, it is not always easy to separate the two.

Among the outstanding puzzles that this book takes on is why it took so long for the Origin to be published after Darwin had formulated his ideas about natural selection and adaptation 21 years earlier. Written as ‘one long argument’ [xviii], as Darwin said, it displayed the style of the times when methodologies were spelled out according to a distinctive English tradition. The Companion begins with Darwin’s desire to understand the transforming effects of breeders who apparently selected plants and animals according to preferable characteristics. The theory of natural selection emerged when Darwin amused himself by reading Malthus’s essay on population and, even though it lacked a theory of heredity (genetics), he had the courage to publish. A focus on natural selection exposes an intriguing difference between the views of the two editors – was Darwin a naturalist of his time in the ‘mold of the industrialists of the eighteen century’ (mechanical and ruthless) [xx] or a Romantic in the continental tradition (Nature ‘creating beings with a moral spine’ so that humans were the goal of evolution by natural selection) [64]? It is a question that runs through a chapter on embryology – ‘my pet bit in my book’, as Darwin confessed to Hooker [194].  

The Companion explains how the Origin speaks of what constitutes a species (still a matter of contemporary interest), the provision of a theoretical basis for systematics, and the architectural keystone used to link divergence and natural selection. From diversity more organisms descended and flourished than would otherwise since differences facilitated adaptation to various ecologies. Other features to emerge include the celebrated metaphor of the ‘tree of life’, difficulties over the apparent lack of transitional forms in natural history, the challenge of a wholly materialistic explanation for the evolution of structures and organs of extreme perfection such as the vertebrate eye, the evolution of instinct and behaviour, and the classic religious problem of theodicy. 

Later sections of the Origin are examined in chapters on Darwin’s deep interest in geology and palaeontology (both of which were transformed by his cautious writings), the geographical distribution of species around the globe which provided a key line of evidence for his theory of common descent, and the study of botany and plants which were foundational to the development of his argumentation. The final Companion chapters unwrap fascinating perspectives about who the Origin was written for, what the Origin revealed (or did not reveal) about Darwin, religion and the question of chance, how the Origin exercised a cultural influence on literature, political thinking, and philosophy (‘inferences to the best explanation’ [321]), and finally, the potential value of investment in a first edition, if you can find one!