The Primates House was the main attraction at the famous Bronx Zoological Gardens in 1906. But what brought amazed smiles from curious adults and squeals of joy from happy children was no ape—it was a human being named Ota Benga. (For the sources from which this biographical sketch is drawn, see Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume, Ota Benga: The Pygmy in the Zoo (New York: St. Martin’s, 1992) and Jerry Bergman, “Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo,” Revolution against Evolution Website, www.rae.org/otabenga.html (accessed August 18, 2008).) A sign in front of the cage in which this man was confined told viewers that he was a twenty-three-year-old African pygmy, 4 feet 11 inches tall, 103 pounds. Ota was displayed like a blue-ribbon pig at the county fair because here, supposedly, was a crucial link showing that man had evolved naturally from apes. Thus, in a sad twist of irony, evolutionists known for making men out of apes here essentially made an ape out of a man.
Display of a caged human being was possible and celebrated because of the dominant scientific wisdom of the time. The event occurred mere decades after the publication of Darwin’s revolutionary theories. Convinced as they were by Darwin that man evolved over time from more primitive life forms, it took only a short leap for many scientists to suggest that there must be different degrees of humanness, some more and some less evolved. (For a detailed summary of the development of this form of racism, see Cornel West, “A Genealogy of Modern Racism, ”Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1982), 47-65.) By the turn of the twentieth century, such distinctions had become scientific orthodoxy, with the world’s best scholars articulating their own culturally conditioned standards for judging levels of humanness. (This quest for standards of humanness became known as the eugenics movement. Among other factors, human status was determined based upon brain size, skull shape, and a variety of other aesthetic features. For a more complete description, see West, 57-61.) These standards varied widely, but the results were invariable: natives of the African continent were closest to man’s primate ancestors, while white Westerners represented the highest form of humanity. This, indeed, was the same logic that would justify Hitler’s atrocities a mere thirty-five years later.
Ota Benga was on the slave market in his native Belgian Congo when African explorer Samuel Verner purchased him in 1904. Verner promptly took the little man back with him to the United Statesto participate in an anthropology exhibit at the St. LouisWorld’s Fair. Just two years later, Verner broke his promise to return Ota to Africa and sold him to Dr. William Hornaday of the Bronx Zoological Gardens. While at first Ota was allowed to walk the grounds of the zoo and help take care of the animals, he was eventually given a cage of his own in the Primates House.
The exhibit was wildly popular with the public and became Director Hornaday’s pride and joy. However, controversy followed close behind. In particular, a group of African-American pastors, realizing the dangerous implications of such an exhibit, took up Ota’s cause. They had heard the label of ape applied to their race before, but this visual demonstration brought that identification to a new level. Eventually, white ministers who feared the evolutionary implications of the exhibit echoed their protest, and over objections and ridicule of the scientific community, Hornaday consented to remove Ota. After a turbulent period in which Ota resided at various benevolent institutions inNew York, he was finally taken to Lynchburg, Virginia. There, within the African-American community, he was able to find peace and distance as he escaped his freakish label. His education progressed, and he even took some courses from a theological seminary, but this period of tranquility was destined to end in tragedy. Still longing for his home in Africa and accepting the reality that he would never return, Ota ended his own life in 1916.
Sadly, as in the antebellum period, many pastors failed to use their influence to challenge this incredible racism. (For example see Kairos Journal article, “Kind but Blind—Southern Churches and Slavery, 1850s.”) Some opposed the display because of its evolutionary implications, and they were right to do so. In this instance, scientific theory needed to be confronted with a biblical view of humanity’s existence in the image of God. No matter what definitions science assigns to “life” and “human” today, the Bible still trumpets the reality of the dignity of human life—the creation of each individual in God’s image. The Ota Benga story confirms a sobering truth: science is not morally neutral or infallible.