Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal,
and the Rise of Naturalism: An Overview

[Burlington House -- Historical Home of the Royal Society 1856-1968 ] [Map of Dickens' London]


The purpose of this Re-Acting Game is to engage students with the ideas involved in one of the most profound debates of the 19th century. At a time when prevailing Western opinion held that order in the world reflected a supernatural Divine Plan, and that strife, disease, and poverty reflected human separation from that plan because of original sin, scientific exploration brought forth an abundance of evidence supporting a more naturalistic approach to understanding earth and human history. One man who not only collected such evidence but who also made greatest use of it was Charles Darwin. In the course of examining the debate over natural theology versus natural history, students will also come to understand that Darwin represented a new, approach to science, and that the struggle over his theories was also a struggle over cultural authority—who decides what is true and what is right.

The student's ultimate victory goal is to control whether or not the Royal Society Council awards Charles Darwin the Copley Medal (roughly equivalent to a Nobel prize) in recognition of his achievements in the field of “genetic biology.” Individual goals include passing formal resolutions concerning such things as the nature of science, Essays and Reviews and the “Scientists' Declaration” (both controversial documents in the debate involving natural theology and natural science), child labor, abolition of slavery, the U.S. Civil War, and the election of women to the RS. "Winning" requires comprehension of the premises of Natural Theology as argued by William Paley, a clear understanding of Darwin's theories in Origin of Species , and an awareness of other issues such as the professionalization of science, racial theories, British nationalism, shifting gender roles, and economic and political distinctions among classes. Students should come to realize that the argument over Darwin was imbued with concerns far beyond the scientific merit of his theory.

Playing the Game

The action takes place in general sessions and council meetings of the Royal Society in London, England, during the years 1860-1864. In 1859, Charles Darwin's long awaited treatise The Origin of Species finally appeared in published form. Immediately, reviews both favorable and damning appeared. In the following year at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Oxford, England, Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley presented arguments for and against the theory in a dramatic and highly public encounter. There followed a vigorous, complex debate within the scientific community and two years later Darwin received his first (unsuccessful) nomination for the Copley Medal.

To establish a temporal boundary for the game, all sessions open with a rousing rendition of "God Save the Queen."

God save our gracious Queen,
Long live out noble Queen,
God save the Queen.
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen
[Lyrics for all 3 verses]
only first sung for events of State

Decision Points & Individual Goals

The process of the game will include a combination of group decision points and individual goals. In order to qualify as a voting member of this Royal Society Council, each student must receive a score of at least 80% on a brief pre-game quiz based our annotated abridgement of "The Origin of Species". Once a student has qualified to play in the game, he/she will be assigned a role. Roles fall into three categories. The “A-men” are an anti-Darwin/ pro-natural theology faction. They include Edward Sabine (President of the RS), Richard Owen, and influential bishop and two composite fictional members. The “X-men” are members of the the X Club which formed in opposition to the religiously conservative signers of the “Declaration of Students of the Natural and Physical Sciences.” The X-Club holds a more “Naturalistic” position and includes Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, a Chaplain, and two composite fictional members. The third group of players, the Indeterminates, do not have an immediate or obvious position on Darwin's receiving the Copley Medal, but do have positions on one or more other issues of the time. They may be persuaded to join either side of the Copley Medal debate, but they have victory goals that are independent of that vote.

Play comprises of general sessions of the Royal Society and meetings of the executive Council. Both will be presided over by Edward Sabine. Anyone wishing to place an item on the agenda will need the prior approval of the secretary, one of which represents each faction. The secretaries may choose which items to include. Items may include resolutions, position papers, and other business pertaining to factional or individual victory conditions. (Note: The Gamemaster reserves the right to intercede in setting the agenda in the interest of insuring the progress of the game.)

In the penultimate meeting of the game, members of the RS Council will nominate candidates for Copley Medal. The final meeting will consist of supporting presentations and debate, and will terminate with a vote for the recipient of the Copley Medal.


As they engage in the game, students will utilize a combination of primary and secondary sources to familiarize themselves with the various positions on these issues. An edited selection from the Origin of Species will introduce students to Darwin's scientific method as well as his fundamental arguments. Students will also read edited selections from published reviews of the Origin (probably those written by Samuel Wilberforce, Joseph Hooker, Richard Owen, and Thomas H. Huxley) to gain an understanding of the responses of Darwin's contemporaries.

Selections from the Darwin Correspondence will demonstrate Darwin's complex relationships with his fellow members of the Royal Society and his friends and neighbors. a selection from William Paley's Natural Theology sets out the prevailing theological understanding of science. John Lubbock's “On Tact,” will be useful to provide students with a guide to appropriate behavior for the time.

Secondary sources, including our narrative, will provide background information and historical perspective on the events surrounding the RS debates.


All students will be required to complete two formal papers in the course of the game (see individual role sheets for specific assignments). Some student's will be required to make a formal presentation before a General Session of the Royal Society. Students will be expected to maintain written correspondence with other players. Some of that correspondence will be public during the game. Private correspondence about the game will be collected as a part of the student's written grade. All students will be expected to make at least one oral presentation during the game.

Character Roles

A-Men (opponents of Darwin)

Edward Sabine, President of Royal Society and Royal Society Council
Richard Owen, anatomist, FRS
1 or 2 additional faction members
"The Bishop"

X-Men (supporters of Darwin)

Thomas Huxley, “Darwin's Bulldog”, FRS
Joseph Hooker, “Darwin's Confidante”, FRS
1 or 2 additional faction members
"The Chaplain"


Other characters will have individual agendas but will not hold fixed positions on the question of the Copley Medal. Characters include two philosophers of science, an ethnologist and an anthropologist, a paleontologist, an astronomer, a civil engineer, a mathematician, a minerologist, a chemist, a geologist, and an historian.