Story: Ideas in New Zealand

Page 4. Darwinism and anthropology

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The origin of species

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the origin of species, which brought into conflict the intellectual traditions of science and Christianity. By explaining evolution as a consequence of the natural selection of characteristics through a struggle for survival, Darwin challenged the need for a creator and contradicted the Bible. In New Zealand there was quick interest in Darwin’s ideas. Samuel Butler published a succinct outline of the theory in the Christchurch Press in 1862.

The Darwinism debate

In Europe and America Darwin’s ideas led to fierce debate. In New Zealand until the 1860s scientists had accepted the idea of a great creator, while missionaries had contributed to science. Darwinism only partially destroyed this cooperation. Some religious conservatives strongly opposed the new ideas, including the Dunedin pamphleteer J. G. S. Grant, Anglican Archdeacon Robert Maunsell and the Presbyterian Reverend William Salmond. Some intellectuals – including John Macmillan Brown, Robert Stout and Edward Tregear – considered that Darwinism undermined religious theories, and argued for a secular point of view.

Paying the price

In 1861, while still in the army, Frederick Hutton had favourably reviewed Darwin’s Origin of species. He came out to New Zealand, where he became Otago’s provincial geologist and worked at the museum. But when he was appointed professor at Otago University, the Synod of the Presbyterian Church declined funding for the chair. It was an unfair judgement, because to the end Hutton believed that evolution expressed God’s presence and will.

But many religious moderates accepted evolution as simply the mechanism that God used – creation on the instalment plan. Many scientists held on to Christian faith while accepting Darwinism. They included Frederick Hutton in Otago, James Hector at the Dominion Museum in Wellington and Julius Haast at Canterbury Museum. In the long term, however, Darwinism undoubtedly strengthened secular perspectives.

Survival of the fittest

Darwinism affected other thinking. The concept of survival of the fittest was applied to the economic world and reinforced New Zealanders’ views about the importance of economic competition.

Age of the world

Along with earlier geological discoveries, Darwinism revolutionised ideas about the age of the Earth. The orthodox Christian view was that the world was less than 6,000 years old – beginning in 4004 BC. Natural selection required much more time, reinforcing the ideas of European geologists and paleontologists. In 1847 the French had uncovered flint tools on the Somme. The theory emerged of a Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) period, in which people used crude unpolished tools. This lasted until about 10,000 BC, when the Neolithic (New Stone Age) peoples emerged, using polished tools.

Unruly employee

In 1870, while excavating Moa Bone Point at Sumner under Julius Haast’s supervision, Alexander McKay discovered polished chisels amid moa bones. Haast was unhappy since this threatened his theories that moa had disappeared long before the arrival of Māori. Eventually McKay’s paper ‘On the identity of the Moa-hunters with the present race’ was read out by James Hector to the Philosophical Institute and then published in 1874.

In 1869 Haast found crude flint blades with moa bones at the Rakaia River mouth. So he concluded that a Palaeolithic people had lived in New Zealand and disappeared with the moa about 10,000 BC, long before Māori, a Neolithic people, arrived. However, this was quickly rejected.

Fatal impact

Darwinism had other effects on local anthropology. Early in the 19th century some argued that Māori were suffering from the ‘fatal impact’ of civilised Europeans. In 1859, the year of Darwin’s book, historian Arthur S. Thomson accepted this theory in the first history of New Zealand. Darwinism gave the argument added force. Weaker peoples such as the Polynesians were thought to be doomed to extinction by the survival of the fittest. The declining Māori population seemed to confirm this – indeed Darwin himself in The descent of man (1872) had used Māori depopulation to suggest ‘inferior’ races would be extinguished by ‘superior’ ones.

Once again the major theories of Europe were applied to local speculations, and in turn informed overseas thinkers.


If Darwinism could suggest negative judgements about Māori, other European ideas provided different conclusions.

In the mid-19th century international linguistic studies suggested affinities between European languages and the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Extending these theories, philologist Max Müller claimed a common Aryan ancestry for Indians and Europeans. These ideas were supported by study of comparative mythologies.

In New Zealand, Edward Tregear argued that Māori were also an Aryan people and their culture had Aryan ‘survivals’. The Māori language, he claimed, preserved the speech of Aryan forefathers and included echoes of the Sanskrit word for cow. The theory attracted some withering criticism, but it had wide influence locally, and received support from writers like S. Percy Smith, who pointed to similarities between Māori mythology and Egyptian myths.

It was not until the 1920s that the archaeologists H. D. Skinner and Roger Duff and the ethnologist Raymond Firth rejected such diffusionist models and explained Māori culture in functional terms, as local adaptation rather than Aryan survivals.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Ideas in New Zealand - Darwinism and anthropology', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 May 2019)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 22 Oct 2014