Social Darwinism

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Something that many people still do not comprehend is that Indigenous people in Australia are actually very much a part of a system that has been a major part of their own oppression. The way that our society operates and the values we place on our community are a flow on effect, if you like, of the early ideas put forward by anti-Indigenous theorists. Social Darwinism has had a profound effect, and while some may consider it a relic of a forgotten and backward period in history it is still present, and this is something that Indigenous people have to live with. The system that they now have no choice but to try and fit into is the very same system that wreaked such a great amount of havoc in the past. It would be folly to suggest that the system should be changed to fix this problem, but as educators we can make a significant difference. It is paramount that educators have an understanding of the way that Social Darwinism has affected Indigenous people. It is important for them to recognise that Social Darwinism and it’s related theories have oppressed and ruined the lives of many Indigenous people. It is then also very important that they have a strategy in place to address these issues now and in the future.

One horrid exclamation point of colonisation was that, all things considered, Indigenous people were considered to be nothing more than unwanted savages. They were classed as an inferior race even before the beginnings of Social Darwinism. It is a theory that has not all together disappeared. A flick through some leading Australian newspapers will attest to this. Race had been a fictional term, but it became a much used and important term and ‘provided an explanation for the rise and fall of civilisations.’ It also provided the explanation for the prominence of white races throughout European colonisation. Racial groups were at the time considered quite different species to one another, a knowledge that was consolidated by the Polygenesis theory. With this theory in mind you can see how white ‘colonisers’ would have felt that this ‘species’ of people they encountered when entering Australia were certainly inferior. Hence the afore mentioned propensity to consider them unwanted savages and treat them accordingly. They would act however necessary to prevent the Indigenous people from diverting their attention from their tasks.

Another concept that held credibility throughout Australian settlement was ‘The great chain of being’. This theory placed different groups into an ordered and hierarchical pattern ‘beginning with the simplest creatures, ascending through the primates to man.’ Indigenous Australians were considered to stand at the very bottom of the chain. “In whatever respect the African differs from the European, the particularity brings him nearer to the ape.’ In light of this, Indigenous people held no position in the ‘new European’ society.

Darwinist theory, initiated by Charles Darwin, was similar to the great chain of being and the Polygenesis theories, but it included the concept of race and used this to justify the distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Under the theory people were still placed in a type of premiership ladder that showed their intellectual and physical aptitude. A difference between the theories, however, was that ‘the great chain was a spatial concept, a staircase of living matter; the Darwinist’s saw the hierarchy as a temporal sequence.’ Darwinist theory works on notions of evolution and the idea that, for whatever reason, different groups develop differently. Darwin went as far as talking about a ‘survival of the fittest’, where natural selection ensured that people evolved according to a variety of conditions and formed a new species. The old, less suitable variety, would simply die out and disappear.

According to Drummond, in his publication Ascent of Man (1894), ‘the Australian native has been repeatedly, almost exclusively, chosen to...
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