Teacher background information


Year 10 Science Content Description

Science as a Human Endeavour

Use and influence of science

Values and needs of contemporary society can influence the focus of scientific research (ACSHE230 - Scootle )

  • researching how the values of 19th and early 20th century Australian society, combined with scientific misconceptions about heredity and evolution, influenced policies and attitudes towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples (OI.6)

This elaboration describes opportunities for students to investigate the role of science and the scientific community in the justification of policies affecting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during the 19th and early 20th century. Students consider how deeply entrenched beliefs of the time, regarding the moral and intellectual ‘superiority’ of the ‘white race’, led to a skewed focus of Western scientific research on classifying human populations based on physical, mental and ‘moral’ traits. Discredited branches of science, such as phrenology and eugenics, as well as poorly understood evolutionary concepts from biology, provided ‘scientific’ arguments that seemingly justified policies of racial segregation in Australia. These policies went as far as denying citizenship rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and allowing state officials to take away ‘mixed-race’ children from their parents and families, now known as the Stolen Generations.

While notions of racial superiority have deep roots in many human societies, the technological and economic dominance of European nations in the 19th century and the establishment of colonial empires made such ideas particularly popular in Western societies of the time. With the emergence of scientific interest in questions of heredity and evolution, many researchers attempted to classify human populations into discrete races and sought empirical evidence for the existence of racial differences in intellectual capabilities and moral characteristics. Such traits were often thought to be linked to certain physical traits, such as facial features or the shape of the skull, as articulated in the now disparaged field of phrenology. Results of such research were commonly published in the form of racial hierarchies, with the European or ‘white’ race at the top.   

This belief in racial superiority was often accompanied by a fear that intermarriage between races would cause an intellectual and moral decline of Western civilisation through the inheritance of inferior mental traits that were believed to be prevalent in the ‘coloured races’. This fear also rested on the now discounted belief that a human’s mental capabilities and moral character are entirely, or at least primarily, determined by genetics and (virtually) unaffected by social and environmental circumstances. Influenced by Charles Darwin’s hypotheses on evolution, his cousin Francis Galton proposed the idea that human society can be improved through ‘eugenics’, that is the encouragement of ‘good breeding’ based on a rigorous statistical understanding of heredity. Fuelled in part by the fear of racial degeneration through miscegenation, eugenics developed into a well-established academic field by the early 20th century. 

Scientists at the time often believed that the ‘primitive’ races represented an earlier, less evolved stage of human development. Seemingly in accordance with Darwin’s ideas about evolution through natural selection and the notion of “survival of the fittest”, as popularised by the sociologist Herbert Spencer, it was commonly assumed that the ‘native peoples’ would eventually become extinct through contact and competition with the ‘superior European race’. This idea, which in the Australian context is referred to as the “doomed race” theory, was often understood to be an inevitable consequence of ‘natural law’. The outcome of extinction was believed to be inevitable unless the state took measures to segregate and ‘protect’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It was intended to minimise contact between races by establishing reservations and by imposing employment and marriage restrictions on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Policies also included the forcible removal and subsequent institutionalisation of half-caste children with the intention of preventing any ‘wild’ influences from their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures while educating them for life in ‘civilised’ Western society. The scientific argument was that through controlled marriage policies for mixed-race Australians, any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander traits could be ‘bred out’ over the course of a few generations.   

In light of contemporary developments in genetics and biotechnology, the central idea of eugenics – the ‘betterment’ of the human species through control of its genepool, be it through old-fashioned breeding programs or modern gene-editing methods – may become a contentious topic again. By investigating the role of science in the development of policies affecting Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples in the early 20th century, students contemplate how the values and beliefs of a society may influence the direction of scientific research and how, in turn, scientific concepts may have an impact on the governance of that society.

In the construction of this teacher background information, a list of consulted works has been generated. The consulted works are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. To access this information, please read and acknowledge the following important information:

Please note that some of the sources listed in the consulted works may contain material that is considered culturally offensive or inappropriate. The consulted works are not provided or recommended as classroom resources.

I have read and confirm my awareness that the consulted works may contain offensive material and are not provided or recommended by ACARA as classroom resources.

The following sources were consulted in the construction of this teacher background information. They are provided as evidence of the research undertaken to inform the development of the teacher background information. It is important that educators recognise that despite written records being incredibly useful, they can also be problematic as they are often based on non-Indigenous interpretations of observations and records of First Nations Peoples’ behaviours, actions, comments and traditions. Such interpretations privilege western paradigms of non-First Nations authors and include, at times, attitudes and language of the past. These sources often lack the viewpoints of the people they discuss and can contain ideas based on outdated scientific theories. Furthermore, although the sources are in the public domain, they may contain cultural breaches and cause offence to the Peoples concerned. With careful selection, evaluation and community consultation, the consulted works may provide teachers with further support and reference materials that could be culturally audited, refined and adapted to construct culturally appropriate teaching and learning materials. The ability to select and evaluate appropriate resources is an essential cultural capability skill for educators.

Butcher, B. W. (1992). Darwinism and Australia 1836-1914. (Doctor of Philosophy thesis), University of Melbourne.

Ellinghaus, K. (2003). Absorbing the 'Aboriginal problem': Controlling interracial marriage in Australia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Aboriginal History, 27, 183-207.

The emergence of the Eugenic Movement, and Aborigines. (2008, December 29). Dickinson College Wiki. Retrieved from http://wiki.dickinson.edu/index.php/The_Emergence_of_the_Eugenic_Movement,_and_Aborigines

Francis, M. (1996). Social Darwinism and the construction of institutionalised racism in Australia. Journal of Australian Studies, 20(50-51), 90-105. doi:10.1080/14443059609387281

Holland, R. C. (2013). The impact of 'doomed race' assumptions in the administration of Queensland's Indigenous population by the Chief Protectors of Aboriginals from 1897 to 1942. (Master of Arts Research), Queensland University of Technology.

Howard-Wagner, D. (2007). Colonialism and the science of race difference. In Public Sociologies: Lessons and Trans-Tasman ComparisonsProceedings of the TASA and SAANZ 2007 Joint Conference. Australia: The Australian Sociological Association.

Jones, R. L. (2011, September 21). Eugenics in Australia: The secret of Melbourne’s elite. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/eugenics-in-australia-the-secret-of-melbournes-elite-3350

McGregor, R. (2002). ‘Breed out the colour’ or the importance of being white. Australian Historical Studies, 33(120), 286-302. doi:10.1080/10314610208596220

Wilson, E. J. (2003). Eugenic ideology and racial fitness in Queensland, 1900-1950 (Unpublished PhD thesis), The University of Queensland.