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.
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.—???”)
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