Today, September 8, is a shameful anniversary in American history. On this day in 1906 a human being, the African pygmy Ota Benga, was first displayed in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo. This was supposed to be of scientific interest, educating visitors in the reigning evolutionary doctrine that placed Africans in close relationship to apes.
There couldn’t be a more appropriate, if dispiriting, occasion for the release of the important new documentary from Discovery Institute, the multiple award-winning Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism. It was written and directed by John West and edited by Rachel Adams.
There have been regional premieres, from Seattle to South Africa, but now the video is available for purchase on Amazon. It tells an amazing, unfamiliar, and tragic story about Ota Benga but also about the history of evolutionary racial and eugenic theorizing — not in Nazi Germany, but in the United States, not by isolated crackpots but by eminent figures in science. The film features Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pamela Newkirk and historian Richard Weikart, author of From Darwin to Hitler, Hitler’s Religion, and other books.
You can see the trailer here:
Darwinian racism was the “consensus science” of its day, and it did not hesitate to belittle and humiliate human beings who fell in an unfavored place in the Darwinist hierarchy. It was criticized at the time by Protestant and Catholic leaders, whom I guess you could class as the “science deniers” of the period.
One scientist in the film, anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943) of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, was President Franklin Roosevelt’s go-to eugenicist and figures in an exhibition you can see now at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Americans and the Holocaust.” A fascinating article in the Jewish online magazine Tablet tells the story about FDR.
It’s not “just” history, though. Much as proponents of evolution would like to ignore or deny it, this is a major part of their own intellectual and moral heritage. As we’ve reported at Evolution News, eugenic and racial thinking of the sort that put a man in the Monkey House is still with us today. See here, here, here, and here, for a few examples.
The video is a “racially charged story that will mesmerize you,” according to the Oregon Documentary Film Festival. “You have to see it to believe it and then wonder why they didn’t teach you this chapter in history class.” Its recognitions include: “Best in Show” (Cinema Worldfest Award), “Best Editing” (Oregon Documentary Film Festival), and “Awards of Excellence” (Hollywood International Independent Documentary Awards, Impact DOCS Awards).
Photo: Ota Benga in 1906, via Wikimedia Commons.