The new documentary Human Zoos is out now, and director and writer John West talks about it in an ID the Future episode. The idea of a human being displayed in a zoo, out of “scientific” interest, is shocking. And as West points out, African pygmy Ota Benga was “only one of thousands of indigenous peoples who were put on display in America in the name of Darwinian evolution.”
Remember, Benga’s humiliation in 1906 by scientists and showmen isn’t ancient history. Nor is the idea of “human zoos,” which were still seen as a reasonable tool of education and entertainment as late as 1958! The World Fair in Belgium that year included a display of Congolese natives, imported from Belgium’s notoriously abused African colonial holding.
It was the New York Times that defended Benga’s caging in the Bronx Zoo’s Monkey House, and patronized the African-American and other clergy who protested it, as West points out. Yes, that’s the same New York Times we know and love, still run by the same family that owned it in 1906. (The current publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, is great-great-grandson of the owner at the time.)
A Familiar Tone
The superior tone is familiar: “We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter,” the editors huffed. Pygmies were “very low in the human scale,” you understand, and “whether they are really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary Negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology and can be studied with profit.”
The Times scoffed at proposals that Ota Benga should be freed from the zoo and given an education:
The suggestion that Benga should be placed in a school instead of a cage ignores the high probability that school would be a place of torture to him and one from which he could draw no advantage whatever. The idea that men are all much alike except as they have had or lacked opportunities for getting an education out of books is now far out of date.
Notice the haughty appeal to the intellectual consensus of the day. They averred, referring to the African-American pastors who opposed Benga’s captivity, that “the reverend colored brothers should be told that evolution, in one form or another, is now taught in the textbooks of all the schools, that it is no more debatable than the multiplication table.”
“No more debatable than the multiplication table”! That could have been written with hardly a change of phrasing by a Darwin proponent, in the New York Times, today.
Photo: Bronx Zoo, Monkey House, from Human Zoos, via Discovery Institute.