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The publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859), is regarded as one of the most monumental events in the history of science. At a swoop, Darwin transformed our understanding of the relationship between life and the environment, while at the same time putting forward a solution to "the mystery of mysteries" of how species came into being. His "dangerous idea", of evolution through natural selection, challenged the dominant theological view of creation and ushered in an era where material superseded religious explanations for the existence of life on earth.
This subject explores the Darwinian scientific revolution by getting students to play a game: Charles Darwin, the Copley Medal and the Rise of Scientific Naturalism. The game is set in the Royal Society of London, the most important scientific body in Britain. Every year the Society awarded the Copley Medal to a front-rank scientist for extending the boundaries of scientific knowledge. It was one of the most prestigious awards a man of science could receive! The question was: should Darwin be awarded the Copley? If the Society decided he should, then it could be seen as legitimising his controversial theory; and if it decided against recognising Darwin's work, it might be portrayed as a bastion of conservatism resisting scientific innovation. The stakes were high and the forces of tradition were ranged against those of modernisation. The game enacts this debate and the forces that shaped it.
Students are allocated a specific role, which they research and perform over the semester. Each week a particular topic relating to science, society and Darwinism is discussed and debated in the Royal Society's chambers at Burlington House: the relationship between science and religion; the philosophical foundations of good science; race and slavery; the role of women in science and society; and the extent to which the state (and the Royal Society) should intervene in social affairs.The pro- and anti-Darwinians battle it out for the hearts and minds of undecided members of the Society's Council, culminating in a final session where a vote is taken about whether to award Darwin the Copley or not. Between the first and final meetings, students meet and plot in an effort to achieve their individual victory objectives.
Unlike traditional teaching methods, this model provides students with an active, immersive and fun way of deepening their understanding of one of science's most profound ideas, while developing key research and presentation skills.
Intended learning outcomes
Upon completion of this subject, students should have:
- developed knowledge and understanding of Darwin's theory and its reception in nineteenth-century science and society;
- researched and performed specific roles relating to key players in the transformation of nineteenth-century science
- analysed and synthesised different interpretations of Darwinism's impacts upon science and society;
- developed and presented effective arguments about Darwin and Darwinism;
- improved oral and written communication skills;
- collaborated constructively inside and outside the classroom;
- demonstrated a high level of ethical integrity in written work and classroom activities, including a deep ethical engagement with evolutionary ideas and their impact.
Last updated: 20 February 2021