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From Human Zoos, College Students Learn the Consequences of Scientific Racism

Human Zoos

One of the rewarding experiences that go with creating a film is doing live screenings and being able to interact in a personal way with viewers during Q&A. For my film Human Zoos (available now on YouTube), I have been fortunate to participate in over a dozen live screenings in the United States and Canada. Some of the screenings I attended in person; others I participated in online. 

Thanks to biology professor Paul Madtes, Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Ohio screened Human Zoos for around 150 students last fall. The screening took place the night of Halloween, which I suppose might be regarded as somewhat appropriate given the grim content of the film. 

After the screening, I was able to participate in a stimulating discussion with the students via Zoom. Students in Madtes’s class later wrote reflections on what they learned from film, and I have been reading them this week.

“Still in Disbelief”

Many students expressed shock:

  • “I’m still in disbelief people could treat other people like this.”
  • “Over the course of the show, my emotions were varying from sadness to anger… I am continuously shocked at events in history that many people just want to gloss over and completely forget about.”
  • “Hearing the stories of different tribes being advertised, presented, and degraded at the World’s Fair made my stomach turn. These people were being used to support scientific claims that humans evolved from apes.”
  • “To think that in the 20th century millions of human beings were compared to apes was just a difficult concept for me to grasp.”
  • “I did not think the movie was actually going to examine literal human zoos. I thought the title was a metaphor for the devaluing of certain types of people… to say I was shocked at the events that took place surrounding actual human zoos, like at the St. Louis World’s Fair, is an understatement. It was mind-boggling.”

Others told how the documentary revealed a part of history they had known nothing about. “It really opened my eyes,” wrote one student. “I had always known that racism was such a large problem that we face in our country today, but I had never heard of ‘scientific racism’ until watching this documentary.”

Another student was shocked to learn from the film that P.T. Barnum in his entertainment shows had marketed an African-American man as a “Man-Monkey”:

This really startled me because P.T. Barnum is who the movie The Greatest Showman is based off of, and I absolutely love that movie. I never once thought of it as showing off the different races as less than or inferior to the whites. When I heard about these facts about Barnum’s show, it made me think about how distorted information can get, and how we tend to just hear the things that sound good or interest us.

For some, the topics explored by the film were intensely personal. At one point Human Zoos describes how eugenicists regarded multi-racial persons as “mongrels.” “As a person who is biracial, this part really hit me and made me upset,” wrote one student. “This made me upset because it hurt to see how people treated other people and tried to control their lives and who people can love.”

A Changed View of History, and of Science

A number of students wondered how people could degrade their fellow humans in the ways shown in the film. “As I was made aware of this piece of history,” a student recounted, “I experienced deep sadness. I asked myself: how could humanity have gotten to this barbaric place?” Another wrestled with why “the majority of people were silent about the mistreatment of Ota Benga. Day after day, individuals stopped to look at Benga as if he were an animal… some individuals even threw objects at him in a way one would an animal.” It made the student “think of times that I was silent in cases that I could have spoken up on behalf of an individual.”

Some reflected on what the documentary meant for how we view science:

Science will always involve humans and therefore it will always involve some amount of prejudice and bias. We need to be aware of this when considering things presented as scientific facts. This is also the reason that it is crucial for science to be an open discussion. Even when something is accepted by the majority, there should always be discussion of flaws and consideration of alternative views.

Many students stressed the importance of learning from history, which was one of my hoped-for takeaways from the film: 

  • “We must remember the past to help us avoid making the same mistakes again. Instead of covering it up like we are doing today we must learn from it.”
  • “Every college student should be required to watch this documentary so that they can be exposed to this information and learn how to work against scientific racism, and more importantly, how to work to never allow some of the examples given in the movie to repeat themselves in the future.”
  • “When the past is ignored and swept under the rug, it has a way of coming back up again. Even now, evolution is being used to spread racism by white supremacists in America… but an understanding of the past can help prevent it from spreading.”

Setting a New Example

Finally, a number of students said they were inspired to overcome the past by setting a different example: 

I know that if I hear or see a person treating someone as inferior based on race, intelligence, or physical deformity that I will step up and defend the person being mistreated. Understanding how God has created each individual and the intrinsic value that comes with that should lead to every Christian treating everyone as if they were such.

Another student concluded: “Look for that person who is different, whether it be race, social class, or anything else and just simply befriend them and let them know that you care for them.” 

One of the most satisfying parts of producing a film or writing a book is learning how it has impacted the lives of other people. You never really know what the impact will be until after the project is released, and even then you sometimes may not know a lot. 

I want to thank Professor Madtes and his students for allowing me to see some of the ways Human Zoos challenged their thinking.

Photo: A scene from Human Zoos, via Discovery Institute.