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Cancel Caribou? Another Questionable Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History

Photo: Display of Grant’s Caribou at the AMNH, by Ehblake / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).

John West has been documenting the failures of a wonderful institution in New York, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), to properly confront its own past association with evolutionary racism. (Most recently, see here and here.) This is even as the museum plots to cancel President Teddy Roosevelt whose great equestrian statue stands outside on Central Park West.

Dr. West sought comment, in vain, from the AMNH about a bust of racist and eugenicist past museum president Henry Fairfield Obsorn and about “a collection of skulls that included pieces gathered from German concentration camps in southwest Africa,” plunder from a horrific experiment in applied Darwinism. (See Darwin, Africa, and Genocide: The Horror of Scientific Racism.) When West was producing the documentary Human Zoos, the museum similarly evaded questions about its historical involvement in advancing the pseudoscience of eugenics.

Madison Grant’s Caribou

Now my friend John Zmirak points out in a tweet that the museum has yet another questionable gem on display — at least indirectly honoring another hair-raising racist, Madison Grant (1865-1937). Grant was a naturalist, author of the 1916 work The Passing of the Great Race, a proponent of “racial hygiene” and “Nordic theory.” Today he’s a hero of the Alt-Right. For more on him, see Human Zoos:

Well, Grant is the namesake of a caribou species, Grant’s Caribou, Rangifer tarandus granti. You can see them, prominently labeled in a display at the museum, pictured above. Should these caribou be canceled, too?

No, I don’t think so. Where does it all end? Zmirak comments, “Cancel NOTHING, tear down NOTHING. This generation is drunk. Take away its car keys.” John West earlier noted one statue of a Darwinian racist that probably does deserve to come down, that of Democratic Senator Benjamin Tillman of South Carolina, albeit in a lawful manner. No statue has an automatic right to eternally adorn a public space.

A Rational Discussion

More generally, it’s time for a rational discussion of the ideas behind some lamentable streams in U.S. history. Discussing the Confederacy and its legacy is important. But just as all black lives matter, not just some, so too all of our history matters, not just some

White nationalists today aren’t shy about acknowledging the roots of their own ideas in evolutionary thinking. In 2013, Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer wrote a new Foreword for a republished edition of Madison Grant’s The Conquest of  Continent, noting that “Darwinism offers a compelling and rational justification for Whites to act on behalf of their ancestors and progeny and feel a shared sense of destiny with their extended kin group.” Guess who wrote the original Foreword? Henry Fairfield Obsorn.

Kanye West was not wrong this week in acknowledging the ugliness behind the founding of Planned Parenthood, whose founder, Margaret Sanger, extolled planned human breeding and did not hesitate to address a KKK rally. Some in the black community have objected to public statuary honoring her. I can understand why, as much as I think now is the time to err on the side of preserving the past. 

Crucially, though, there needs to be some frankness on the part of Darwinian scientists and, yes, abortion advocates about the shadow of their own past. The role of science, including evolutionary science, in justifying racism and eugenics is a subject that needs to be opened up wide, not decorously ignored any longer.