The attitudes and perceptions held about Indigenous Australians by Australians of European descent have changed over two hundred years of colonisation. Social Darwinism is among the leading ideological paradigms that have formed and maintained attitudes and perceptions, and influenced laws from 1770 to the present.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection is a biological theory about how new species are formed and existing ones become extinct. Darwinism maintains that variations between existing organisms within a species confer differences in their survival and reproductive success. Progeny that inherit advantageous characteristics have an enhanced ability to survive and reproduce, ensuring that, over time, adaptive change will modify a population. The role of natural selection as the agent of evolutionary change has been described by Dobzhanksy as ‘a deputy of the environment’ (1960, p. 24).
Four elements of Darwin’s theory of natural selection were presented in his monumental work On the Origin of Species (1859), namely:
(i) biological laws govern the whole of organic nature, including humans;
(ii) the pressure of population growth on resources generates a struggle for existence among organisms;
(iii) inheritable physical and mental traits confer a comparative advantage or disadvantage on their possessors in this struggle;
(iv) cumulative effects of selection and inheritance over time account for the emergence of new species and the elimination of others. (Hawkins 1998, p. 31)
These four principles provide such a powerful account of the formation of new species that Darwin’s theory of natural selection remains a unifying principle in modern biology. In the years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, its principles were ambitiously taken up by those who hoped to draw similar insights in fields other than biology. Among these were nineteenth century philosophers such as Herbert Spencer in England, Ernst Haeckel in Germany and William...