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Charles Darwin thinks about Indigenous people in Australia

Video clip synopsis – In 1836 Darwin briefly visited Australia. Professor Iain McCalman reflects on Darwin's observation of the impact and triumph of settler society on indigenous peoples.
Year of production - 2009
Duration - 5min 45sec
Tags - Charles Darwin, diversity, evolution, habitats, science, see all tags


Charles Darwin thinks about Indigenous people in Australia

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About the Video Clip


Charles Darwin thinks about Indigenous people in Australia was recorded in 2009 as part of the Australian National Maritime Museum special exhibition Charles Darwin — voyages and ideas that shook the world.

Charles Darwin thinks about Indigenous people in Australia is on the website Charles Darwin – The Australian Connection produced in 2009 by Ryebuck Media in association with the Australian National Maritime Museum for Screen Australia Digital Learning. The website takes us on an adventure to explore the role Australia played in shaping Charles Darwin’s theories.

The exhibition and the website were produced to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.

Professor Iain McCalman is a historian at the University of Sydney.

Background Information


At the age of 22 Charles Darwin seemed destined to become a clergyman when in 1831 he was given an opportunity to sail to South America on the small survey vessel HMS Beagle. The five year voyage exposed the young Darwin to the stunning nature of the world, triggering ideas that would come to explain the origin of life on earth and shake society to its core. The Beagle voyage proved the seminal event in Charles Darwin’s career, setting him on a path to become the most famous naturalist of the modern era.

In 1836 Darwin briefly visited Australia, with stops at Sydney, Hobart and King George’s Sound.

During his stay in Sydney he made a trip to Bathurst and the Blue Mountains. His comments on the geology and wild life of the area, and his comments on the possible fate of the Aboriginal people he saw, provide us with strong indications that he was already in the process of developing his famous theory of evolution by means of natural selection, and which he finally published in 1859.

Classroom Activities


1. The clip refers to Malthus’ theories. Here is an explanation of this influence:

Charles Darwin was influenced by many writers, scholars, philosophers, and friends. One of his influences was Thomas Robert Malthus, a late-eighteenth century economist. Malthus wrote “Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798), which Darwin read and was inspired by. The central theme of Malthus’ work was that population growth would always overpower food supply growth, creating perpetual states of hunger, disease, and struggle. The natural, ever-present struggle for survival caught the attention of Darwin, and he extended Malthus’ principle to the evolutionary scheme. 

Darwin considered that some of the competitors in Malthus’ perpetual struggle would be better equipped to survive. Those that were less able would die out, leaving only those with the more desirable traits. Through his research, Darwin concluded that this ongoing struggle between those more and less fit to survive would produce a never-ending progression of changes in the organism. In its simplest form, this is evolution through natural selection.

Go to All About Science

In your own words explain how Darwin saw Malthus’ ideas as offering an explanation of what he observed in nature.
2 McCalman suggests that Darwin was seeing the same situation with the Aboriginal people. In this case, what was the ‘invasive species’?
3 How was this invasive species a threat to the Aboriginal people?
4 Where, according to Darwin, had this happened before?
5 Some people have used ideas of ‘social Darwinism’ to justify the displacement of what they believe are inferior people by superior ones. They say that the fitter species has supplanted the less worthy one. McCalman says that Darwin is not making a moral judgement, he is just making a scientific observation. Why might it be important to make factual and not moral judgements about this situation?

Further Resources


Nora Barlow (ed), The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882, New York, WW Norton & Company, 2005

Charles Darwin, Voyage of the Beagle, London. Penguin, 1989

F.W. Nicholas and J.M. Nicholas, Charles Darwin in Australia, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2002

Iain McCalman & Nigel Erskine (eds), In the wake of the Beagle: science in the southern oceans from the age of Darwin, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2009

Iain McCalman, Darwin’s armada: how four voyagers to Australasia won the battle for evolution and changed the world, 
Sydney, Viking, 2009

David Quammen (ed), Charles Darwin: On the origin of species, illustrated edition, New York, Sterling, 2008

Julie Simpkin (ed), Charles Darwin: An Australian Selection, Canberra, National Museum of Australia Press, 2008

The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online

About Darwin

Natural History Museum – Darwin200

American Museum of Natural History – Darwin

Natural History Museum – Darwin, Big Idea, Big Exhibition