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Something Is Missing from Bronx Zoo’s Apology

Monkey House
Photo: Bronx Zoo, Monkey House, by Antigng / CC BY-SA (

Better late than never, the Bronx Zoo yesterday apologized for imprisoning an African Pygmy, Ota Benga, as a display in its Monkey House in 1906. They left something out, though. But first, why did they choose this moment? From Fox News:

The chief executive of the [Wildlife Conservation Society], Cristián Samper, told the [New York] Times that the group had started digging into its history because of its 125th anniversary this year. Samper said that process, combined with conversations about racial injustice sweeping the country after the police killing of George Floyd, prompted the apology.

Did the impact of the multiple awards-winning documentary Human Zoos, by Discovery Institute’s John West, now with 2.5 million views and powerfully documenting the horrific episode and others like it, play any role? They don’t say. We’re supposed to believe it was sheer coincidence, the 125th anniversary of the zoo’s opening combined with Black Lives Matter protests, that prompted them to start “digging into” the zoo’s history.

Saving Face

Well, fine. Let them save a bit of face. It’s commendable, too, that they admit the role of “pseudoscientific racism” and eugenics in the story of Ota Benga, his humiliation and dehumanization. From the zoo’s statement:

Specifically, we denounce the eugenics-based, pseudoscientific racism, writings, and philosophies advanced by many people during that era, including two of our founders, Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn, Sr. Excerpts from Grant’s book “The Passing of the Great Race” (with a preface by Osborn), were included in a defense exhibit for one of the defendants in the Nuremberg trials. Grant and Osborn were likewise among the founders of the American Eugenics Society in 1926.

What’s missing, and it’s not fine, is any mention of where these evil ideas came from. What was the nature, the content, of the “pseudoscientific racism” that motivated Ota Benga’s treatment? To be accurate, the racism wasn’t “eugenics-based” it was “evolution-based.” That is left out.

Candid and Shocking

For a candid and shocking treatment, I suggest watching Human Zoos

Imprisoning and displaying an African man in a zoo was not an experiment in eugenics, although that phony “science” was in vogue at the time at the institutions of higher learning where today woke students and faculty lecture the country about its systemic racism. One human zoo, at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle, featured a display of supposedly primitive native people from the Philippines, the Igorot. The 1909 Exposition grounds became the campus of the University of Washington, from which professor and “white fragility” expert Robin DiAngelo now holds forth. Background like this never seems to make the cut.

The truth is that placing a man in the Monkey House was intended as an education for the public in Darwinian evolution. As John West has said, Ota Benga was “only one of thousands of indigenous peoples who were put on display in America in the name of Darwinian evolution.”

They Forgot to Mention

Though its article yesterday forgets to mention it (“Racist Incident from Bronx Zoo’s Past Draws Apology”), the New York Times understood that clearly in 1906. Brushing aside protests from black clergymen that the African should be given an education not put in the cage, the newspaper explained:

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.

In other words, “Listen to the science!” In fact, racial hierarchy was hailed as solid science at the time. The Times continued,

[T]he 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.

Some Things Never Change

The New York Times remains as haughty and scolding as it was 114 years ago. But they were right that evolution was (and is) “taught in the textbooks of all the schools,” as if it were as unquestionable as “the multiplication table.” The high school textbook at the center of the Scopes Trial in 1925, Civic Biology, informed students about the ranking of the human races, with the “Ethiopian or negro type” at the bottom, as a straightforward conclusion of evolutionary science.

Facing up to history, not tearing it down or hiding from its lessons, is necessary and healthy. The Bronx Zoo has gone a step in that direction, but not the whole way. They still shy from laying a hand on Darwinian theory. That would be going too far. The New York Times, in examining its own part in the same story, hasn’t even taken a step.