Sunday, October 28, 2012


Throughout the 19th century, European scientists were obsessed with the impending extermination of native peoples around the world. It is startling how scientists were so eager to proclaim the extinction of the Tasmanians, and then “grieved” over the death of Trugannini, the so-called last Tasmanian, in 1876. It is all the more startling considering that it never happened. The myth of the total elimination of Tasmanians (which I was taken in by for a long time) is one that scientists helped to create. There are presently about one thousand descendants of the Tasmanian aborigines. I don’t know if any of them are “pure”. They may be mixed with Europeans and other Australian aborigines, but Tasmanians have survived and inhabited the land in one way or another.

Extinction was something European scientists believed in, hoped for, relished, and lamented. There was more wish fulfillment in it than objective analysis. Patrick Brantlinger mentions a number of reasons why the myth became prevalent, including pessimism over the idea that aborigines could be improved and the usefulness of the myth in reinforcing the belief that scientists were right about aborigine inferiority and about other peoples soon becoming extinct. One case of extinction meant more were coming. The myth would be particularly useful a century later when the (white) Tasmanian government denied special rights to Tasmanians because they don’t exist.

As for that pessimism, Darwin reflected it as well as some impatience, when he wrote in his Notebook D 111, around September 1838, “How long will the wretched inhabitants of NW. Australia, go on blinking their eyes. without extermination, & change of structure.” I believe that last conjunction should be ‘or’. Darwin was saying that it is not natural for any species or race to live long in misery, so that it either will improve in structure or go extinct. As he says earlier in the same Notebook at 49, on August 27, “animals must tend to improve;” yet fish, he says, are same or lower, and so he adds “for a very old variety will be harder to vary, & therefore more apt to be extinguished.—???”)

Darwin once pointed out that there was a high proportion of speculation to facts in his grandfather’s work. He never noticed, however, that he himself was doing the same thing with the extinction of human beings. That betokens an effort to make it true rather than an objective fact that was discovered and believed. Nor was Darwin interested in the myriad ways a people employ to survive. I once heard Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer say in a lecture that, for the Jewish people, it is a long way from being sick to dying. For 19th century scientists, there was no distinction. They fantasized their way from one to the other.                    

© 2012 Leon Zitzer