Click here to view CMI's position on climate change.

Bronx Zoo apologizes for putting a man in a monkey house

And evades the real reasons in the process


6 August 2020

Ota Benga

As far back as 1993 in our Creation magazine we wrote about the horrific and inhumane treatment of Ota Benga, a young African man who was taken from Congo in 1904 by noted African explorer and former slave trader Samuel Verner. Samuel Verner was known for his belief in evolution and for his support of white supremacist ideals. On his maiden voyage onboard the Roquelle from Antwerp to Congo, Verner was surprised that dark-skinned individuals were allowed to dine together with Caucasian shipmates. In a letter to his mother, he lamented that, “the helplessness of that race is simply appalling.”1 So from the very beginning of his journey to the West, Ota found himself strongly influenced by racist evolutionists.

Ota was first displayed as an ‘emblematic savage’ in the anthropology wing at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair with other pygmies. He was eventually presented by Verner to the Bronx Zoo director, William Hornaday who came up with the idea of using Ota Benga to ‘educate’ the public about human evolution. At this time Ota Benga was just twenty-three years old. His height was only 1.5 metres (4 feet 11 eleven inches) and he only weighed 46.7 kg (103 lb). Ota Benga, which meant ‘friend’ in his native language, was often thought to be just a boy, but he was actually a twice-married father. His first wife and two children were murdered by white colonists, and his second spouse died from a poisonous snake bite.

Ota Benga became a sensation, drawing large crowds to the Zoo including over 40,000 on Sunday, 16 September 1906. Despite criticism, particularly from some church leaders at the time, Dr Hornaday insisted that he was merely offering an ‘intriguing exhibit’ for the public’s education and:

… apparently saw no difference between a wild beast and the little black man; [and] for the first time in any American zoo, a human being was displayed in a cage. Benga was given cage-mates to keep him company in his captivity—a parrot and an orang-utan named Dohong.2

Nevertheless, Hornaday’s racist Darwinian ideas were clear elsewhere in his writings where he described Ota Benga as:

“… a genuine African pigmy, belonging to the subrace commonly miscalled ‘the Dwarfs.’”3

The other co-founder of the Bronx Zoo was Henry Osborn. Henry Osborn was regarded as the leading evolutionist of his day, and is famed for the discovery of many dinosaurs, including the T. rex. Like Hornaday, Henry Osborn was highly racist as a result of his belief in evolution. For example, before Madison Grant (who was also influential in the founding of the Bronx Zoo) wrote his racist book, On the Passing of a Great Race, Grant shared his transcript with Osborn who made many suggestions. In the preface to the fourth edition Osborn wrote:

[I]n no other human stock which has come to this country is there displayed the unanimity of heart, mind and action which is now being displayed by the descendants of the blue-eyed, fair-haired peoples of the north of Europe. If I were asked: “What is the greatest danger which threatens the American republic to-day? I would certainly reply: The gradual dying out among our people of those hereditary traits through which the principles of our religious, political and social foundations were laid down and their insidious replacement by traits of less noble character.”4

Grant’s book, as we know, was largely influential on Adolf Hitler. Hitler called the book, ‘his bible’ for it advocated a rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit.

For more on this tragedy, please read our comprehensive articles on Ota Benga: The pygmy put on display and The man who was put on display in the zoo!

114 years later, the Zoo apologizes

Pygmies from Central Africa dancing on platform in front of the Palace of Manufactures at the 1904 World’s Fair on 28 July 1904.

As reported in July 2020, The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS, which runs the zoo) said:

“We deeply regret that many people and generations have been hurt by these actions or by our failure previously to publicly condemn and denounce them,” WCS President and CEO Cristián Samper wrote. “We recognize that overt and systemic racism persists, and our institution must play a greater role to confront it.”5

But was it really racism?

At the time of writing, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained widespread traction around the world. Statues of colonialists and slavery advocates are being removed or defaced, and similar apologies abound at all levels. However, although one might claim that actions of slavery advocates were racist and/or prejudiced against other humans (slavery existed in many non-white cultures too), it was undoubtedly evolutionary beliefs that led to the humiliation of this young man. Most scientists of the day had uniformly accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the popular idea that humans had evolved from ape-like creatures. Indeed, the display in the monkey house where Ota Benga was exhibited was called ‘Ancient Ancestors of Man’.

The apology misses the mark, completely

As part of its mission to be more transparent, WCS is making all records and archives related to Benga publicly available.6

While being politically correct and being swept up in a cultural tide, they are actually failing to be transparent. Although the zoo apologized for this racist action, nowhere in the zoo’s apologies or statements do they mention the real reason Ota Benga was put on display. It was a belief in evolution, as clearly stated by the main players of the day themselves. All five owners associated with Ota Benga—Samuel Verner, William McGee, William Hornaday, Henry Osborn, and Madison Grant—were well-known evolutionists of their day.

The climate of the day

Note this popular reconstruction of Homo erectus dark skin (current at the time of writing).

In CMI’s groundbreaking documentary The Voyage that Shook the World, we interviewed Darwin historian, Peter Bowler, in Charles Darwin’s old Cambridge office. Bowler, although an evolutionist himself, noted about Darwin:

That by the time he writes The Descent of Man in 1871 it’s pretty clear that he, by that time, shares the growing suspicion or conviction of many Europeans. The non-white races simply do not have the capacity to be elevated properly into civilised human beings; that they are mentally and morally at a more limited level. In a sense they are stuck at an early stage in the biological evolution of the human species.

So their way of life may offer us a so fossilised relic of what our own ancestors lived like in the distant prehistoric past. But now Darwin and many of his contemporaries are beginning to realise that what they needed to claim that they are biologically relics of the past. They are in fact equivalent to earlier stages in the ascent from the apes who have been preserved in isolated locations, preserved with those earlier levels of mental and moral development. [sic] 7

Note the following timeline prior to Ota Benga’s humiliation:

  • 1833: British Empire abolished slavery.
  • 1859: Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species (26 years after abolition of slavery).
  • 1865: The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in USA.
  • 1871: Darwin wrote The Descent of Man (38 years after abolition in UK and 6 years after USA).

Slavery had been outlawed for more than forty years by the time of Ota Benga’s 1906’s misadventure. In other words, Ota Benga’s humiliation had very little to do with slavery.

The aforementioned Verner (Ota Benga’s captor) was also an academic. Darwin’s views intrigued him when he wrote:

Famous anthropologist adorns the cover of Time with a ‘black man’ wearing a mask of Homo habilis.
Are they men, or the highest apes? Who and what were their ancestors? What are their ethnic relations to the other races of men? Have they degenerated from larger men, or are the larger men a development of Pygmy forefathers? These questions arise naturally, and plunge the inquirer at once into the depths of the most heated scientific discussions of this generation. ‘Pygmies present a case of unmodified structure from the beginning [a view which is] … against both evolution and degeneracy. It is true that these little people have apparently preserved an unchanged physical entity for five thousand years. But that only carries the question back into the debated ground of the origin of species.8

Authors Bradford (Verner’s grandson) and Plume cited some of the visitor’s questions to Ota Benga’s display.

Was he a man or monkey? Was he something in between? “Ist das ein Mensch?” asked a German spectator. “Is it a man?” … No one really mistook apes or parrots for human beings. This—it—came so much closer. Was it a man? Was it a monkey? Was it a forgotten stage of evolution?9
Daily Telegraph Mirror, 26 Aug 1994.racism-australia

Clearly, the display was not lost on the public of the day. It was Darwin’s views that caused this small man to be viewed as an evolutionary ‘throwback’.

But, notably, nowhere around the world do we see Darwin’s statue being removed for his offensive ideas that the non-white races were lower on the evolutionary scale.

In fact, many of the racist taunts still being used today have their roots in Darwinian ideology or the idea that black people are ‘closer to the apes’ on the evolutionary scale. For example, see our articles Do monkeys play football? and Ape’ slur against Australian indigenous footballer. Is it any wonder when we still see displays and photos in evolutionary textbooks such as the ones pictured above?

Not the only example

We’ve also previously reported about the killing and removal of various ethnic groups around the world due to evolutionary beliefs. For example, in Australia we cited reports that perhaps the bodies of 10,000 Aboriginal people were shipped to British museums.10 

‘US evolutionists were also strongly involved in this flourishing ’industry‘ of gathering specimens of ’subhumans‘. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington holds the remains of 15,000 individuals of various races.11 And then in April 2019, The State Ethnographic Collections department and the Martin Luther University in Germany, decided to return the bones of 53 Aboriginal people to the Yawuru indigenous group from Western Australia.

The BBC reported:

Aboriginal remains being returned at a ceremony in Germany.
Skulls and bones of Aboriginal Australians were removed by researchers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and put on show in museums around the world. However, they were displaced by settlers two centuries ago and thousands were killed. For more than 150 years, their remains were removed and sent to museums, universities and private collections in Australia and elsewhere.12

But note, never once did the German institutions or the BBC mention the evolutionary reasons for their removal of these bodies from their homeland, except the evolutionary timeline invoked with it:

Australia’s native Aboriginal population has occupied the country for about 50,000 years.

It also reported that:

Germany also has large holdings of African human remains. The country has previously repatriated remains to Namibia, where it killed tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people from 1904 to 1908.

Today, the remains of tens of thousands of ethnically diverse people remain in academic institutions around the world.

‘Fess up’, Bronx Zoo!

Will the Bronx Zoo and these institutions admit the real reasons for these atrocities? Will they provide a proper apology for the evolutionary teaching that these are sub-humans—mere beasts to be studied and displayed for the advancement of mankind? Sadly these ideas still permeate the evolutionary community literature/images. Racism will continue to rear its ugly head until the underlying root philosophy is addressed. As philosopher Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”13

A lesson for the church also

As we’ve shown on this issue, the scientific consensus of evolution was an unstoppable juggernaut. I think of Christian missionaries who went to continents like Africa to preach the Gospel to people like Ota Benga and his kin. They did not have the DNA-science of today that confirms that all humanity is more than 99.99% percent similar. But they stood on God’s Word where it says, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place” (Acts 17:26). Evolutionists in Ota Benga’s day would insist that the ‘science’ was on their side, but they were wrong. Christians who are only too happy to embrace evolution should learn from these atrocities of history in the name of (evolutionary) ‘science’.

References and notes

  1. Newkirk, P., Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, HarperCollins, 2015, p. 84. Return to text.
  2. Sifakis, C., Benga, Ota: the zoo man, American Eccentrics, Facts on File Inc., New York, pp.252–253, 1984. Return to text.
  3. An African Pigmy, Zoological Society Bulletin, published by New York Zoological Society, Wildlife Conservation Society Archives, 23 Oct, 1906, pp. 301–2. Return to text.
  4. Ref. 1, pp. 43–44. Return to text.
  5. Organization that runs Bronx Zoo apologizes for putting an African man on display in its Monkey House, cnn.com/2020/07/30/us/bronx-zoo-man-exhibit-apology-trnd/, accessed 3 August 2020. Return to text.
  6. Ref. 2. Return to text.
  7. creation.com/darwin-historians-not-misrepresentedReturn to text.
  8. Verner, S.P., The African pygmies, Atlantic 90: pp.192–193, 1902. Return to text.
  9. Bradford, P.V. and Blume, H., Ota Benga; The Pygmy in the Zoo, St Martins Press, New York, p.179, 1992. Return to text.
  10. creation.com/darwins-bodysnatchers-new-horrorsReturn to text.
  11. Ref. 10. Return to text.
  12. Aboriginal remains returned by Germany to Australia, bbc.com/news/world-europe-47934971, accessed 3 August 2020. Return to text.
  13. The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress, 1905–1906, cited on en.wikiquote.org/wiki/George_Santayana, accessed 3 August 2020. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

How did all the different 'races' arise?
by Dr Don Batten, Dr Carl Wieland
US $0.75
Soft Cover
One Human Family
by Dr Carl Wieland
US $10.00
eReader (.epub)
The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $39.00
Hard Cover

Readers’ comments

O.K. Gary, I understand your point. How about this revision:

"EVOLUTION is based on a series of false statements about events that never happened, spoken by people who weren't there." Smoother, yes?

Thanks for your thoughts. And a very helpful article.
David P.
Oh dear oh dear. Evolution has nowt to do with racism. You say that 99.99% of the DNA in humans is the same. You don't go on to add who are closest primates to Man: see Scientific American 175th Anniversary issue.: "In 1871 Charles Darwin surmised that humans were evolutionarily [sic] closer to the African apes than to any other species alive. The recent sequencing of the gorilla, chimpanzee and bonobo genomes confirms that supposition and provides a clearer view of how we are connected: chimps and bonobos in particular take pride of place as our nearest living relatives, sharing approximately 99 percent of our DNA, with gorillas trailing at 98 percent." You keep repeating that we're "descended from apes." That was disproved 150 years ago and now incontrovertibly proven in DNA. We have a common ancestor. Simple. Beautiful. All we need is time - and that your weird organisation distorts and refuses to believe. Time you woke up and grew up.
Gary Bates
It's interesting that you dare to lecture us as being ignorant of the facts and distortions, when you cite a 98 and 99 percent DNA similarity. Your unwise attempt at ridicule falls short as you are clearly the one oblivious to the actual data. Such comparisons of the alleged closeness genetically of humans chimps and even gorillas have been relegated to trash can years ago. Renowned former evolutionist Jon Ahlquist (see this article about it) was one of the fathers of the original 98% study which he has since recanted on upon realizing the errors in his research. Such alleged studies also depend upon which part of the genomes are being compared also and it is not a case of comparing apples with apples as most laypeople think when they hear the percentage sound bite. I would suggest you should do a bit more research before firing off emails as if we are somehow uninformed. As such, more informed people will only see your own remarks as rather ignorant on the subject. Yet, you could have taken a deep breath before seeking to satisfy your emotional angst and availed yourself of the search engine on this site to see that your assumptions are already covered and clearly incorrect. I've supplied some links for you which I hope you'll take the time to read so that you are better able to have an informed conversation on the subject.
Genomic Monkey Business;
uman-chimp-dna-similarity-literature"> Is the human genome nearly identical to chimpanzee?
The Myth of 1%;
Y chromosome shock;
An illusion of common descent;
There are probably about 20 or so more articles I could have linked to but these should get you started for now. I've also supplied a Wikipedia link for you here that explains that chimps, gorillas and bonobos area all classified as apes. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Apes. Evolutionists clearly still believe that humans evolved from ape-like creatures. Oh BTW

BTW similarities in appearance and function between species are known as homologies and and are actually better evidence of common design and the common language code (DNA), not evidence of common ancestry. I also suspect you are probably not aware of the results of neandertal DNA sequencing either. See Neandertal genome like ours.
Donald M.
Great article as usual from you guys. One question though, is that a chimpanzee or an orangutan in the picture as your email lead-in says?
Gary Bates
He is pictured holding a chimpanzee at the top of the article. It then goes on to explain that he was kept in an exhibit/cage with an orang-utan.
There is no legitimate "science" of the past. The first step in scientific discovery is OBSERVATION. And only the present can be observed. All evolutionary thinking is based on assumptions, guesswork and speculation. Or to paraphrase George Santayana, EVOLUTION is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there.George said "HISTORY", but since evolution is all about he past, my paraphrase fits perfectly. Racism is the natural outgrowth of the evolutionary world-view. there are only 2 incompatible world-views: IN THE BEGINNING GOD and In the beginning 'chance'. Chance doesn't exist. It is a mathematical concept useful to predict the possible outcome of a series of coin flips or the likelihood of rain this afternoon. Shame on the Christian churches/leaders in America for adding evolutionary thinking to Holy Scripture. That's lots of wood, hay and stubble be stored up for the BEMA judgment. Stamp out evolutionary nonsense and racism dies a natural death in time.
Gary Bates
Hi Bob, I think it is a little strong to call them lies about the past. Many of us are former evolutionists and we did not believe we were lying when we taught it. To accuse of lying implies deliberate deceit and motivations (only God knows the heart). The reason I mention this is if we try to witness to evolutionists but are starting position is that "You are a liar" I don't think we'd be very successful. Our aim is to win people over, not accuse them. "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). Your statements about the 'science of the past' are quite correct though. Read It's not science. Blessings to you.
Andy B.
An excellent article! Thank you very much. What a positive difference it might make if the Bronx Zoo and others came clean about the undeniable link with evolution. How ironic that their apology omits 'the missing link'.
Peter R.
A Facebook contact posted a link to the fascinating PBS documentary "The Eugenics Crusade" in the "American Experience" series. Madison Grant and his book are featured in it. It's available free in USA on various PBS sites, and in the UK on the website of Channel 5. I was surprised at how they clearly linked to Darwin and evolution at the start of the documentary. I'm sure they didn't intend to criticize Darwin or the theory of evolution, but from the point of view of a reader of Creation magazine, that's how it came across! It certainly gives an insight into how bad "science" can take over for a good long time before being discredited.
Otto I.
I recall a large glassed-in diarama at the Melbourne Museum in the early 1950's depicting early evolutionary man with taxidermied Australian aborigines. My mother ushered us children on quickly, horrified at this blatant depraved display supporting Hitler's eugenics philosophy. It was for this brazen public indoctrination that we left Europe and its atrocities.
I still wonder when those aborigines will be returned to their home territories.
OI Australia
Ray N.
Racism is like a weed that has its root firm in the soil of evolution. Every attempt to weed out racism in a secular society is superficially removing the weed at the stem, and leaving the roots to grow again. You can make laws and condemn racism publicly, but you cannot stop people from such thoughts when they have been convinced that evolution is fact.
A racist person makes racist remarks because the racist person believes that he/she is genetically superior or more evolve than their target. A target of racism is most hurt by such remarks when he/she believes that they are inferior or less evolved.
When 2 boisterous boys, one dark skin and one light skin, are playing together energetically and someone remarks "they are a couple of cheeky little monkeys", that one sentence can be deemed as both racist and not racist. It depends on the colour of the skin of the person who said it and who it was directed at.
Unfortunately, I can't see an end to racism. I doubt secular society is willing to destroy the foundation of their faith, namely evolution. It would mean acknowledging God is real, He has a standard for right and wrong, which man had fallen short and have sinned against Him.
Ulrich K.
Thanks Mr Bates. And very interesting what Rev. Robert W. had to say in his comment. In further response to Andres S. I would say that, indeed it is true, the atrocities many committed were done out of a desire to do good. And what ground do we have to question the sincerity of such intentions as Henry Osbornes, who clearly wanted to solve 'the greatest danger which threatens the American republic to-day', as Mr Bates points out, to which multitudes would have fully agreed. Should such then be free of being 'blameworthy' or 'guilty of any evil action.', because they formed an opinion based on their perceptions and no doubt the prevailing influences of the day? Most certainly NOT. Sins done in ignorance, though less heinous, remain sins. But is it this simple? Should we judge a persons actions only by the level of 'good-will' they show to their human victims? If I hold an opinion that is clearly opposed to the testimony of Jesus Christ, what good-will have I left toward him? Charles Darwin and those supporting him at the time knew full well that they were presenting a theory that was opposed to God's word on the matter and so made the conscious choice of rejecting God's truth for their 'own opinions'. And to simply say they made an honest mistake is again just shifting the blame, as if God wasn't clear enough on the issue. Evolution was, and still is, attractive to the evil propensities of our heart, which would have us all to be deists at best, and despise God's authority over us (Ps 2). Evolution doesn't turn us into victims of sin, our sinful nature is attracted and has the propensity to turn us into evolutionists, or anything else that would seem to justify ourselves before men in consciously choosing to stand against God's law.
Andres S.
While the article does make many excellent and necessary points and brings forward information that is not popularly known and is thus much appreciated, I do have a point of contention. I feel that many today including this article fail to make a spritual discernment between racism as something involving human judgement, opinion and experience versus racism of malevolent will and this is a problem. To help elucidate my point I offer that it is possible to be of a momentary opinion while attempting to characterize understand expalin or assess a particular person, people group or culture and not bear any ill will towards them or be guilty of any evil action or motive. Thus not all so called racists were racist in the sense that we all condemn but which most nowadays seem to conflate together with each other. In other words there is that which is called racism but is not racist in the sense of unjust discriminatory or malevolent action but simply an opinion based on one's perception and or experience. Whether one is mistaken or not it is not blameworthy. In other words reason is allowed to explore and should be allowed freedom to explore amd do its job of classifying, arranging and scrutinizing in search for truth with freddom. I hope my point is clear and well taken and not wilfully misunderstood and twisted although if it is I am prepared to stand my ground, defend and explain further.
Gary Bates
I'm not even sure there is a bone of contention there at all. I think you are referring to any form of discrimination. Humans do this to each other all the time regardless of 'race'. We do it politically, religiously, whether one supports a certain football team, upon their language based upon whether they are fat or skinny or whatever, and there are a myriad of prejudices one could use to justify one's discrimination. People of all colours and creeds have also been subjugated as nations conquer others (I supplied a link to highlight racism in non-white cultures too). I think your point is subtle but respectfully, not quite applicable as it somewhat missed the point of the article, which was specific, and also not meant to be holistic in incorporating every type of prejudice or discrimination for whatever reason. Simply, to recap: The Bronx Zoo made a politically correct apologist for what they deemed was a racist action. But it was actually discrimination based upon evolutionary beliefs. We were talking about historical events so let's please limit ourselves to that.
Rev Robert W.
Back in the seventies, I picked up a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and browsed a few leaves of it: it had a particular flavour to it. Several decades later I picked up a copy of Darwin’s Origin of Species by Natural Selection and, as I browsed a few leaves of that, it reminded me of exactly what I had browsed decades before: “This is Mein Kampf Volume II”, I thought. And I could not believe the full title either: the subtitle of which reads … or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. They are two of piece, only Hitler’s work is really the outcome of Charles Darwin’s thought, but applied to mankind. Why are we never told this?
Sas E.
Very powerful piece. The ‘woke’ left have are tearing down statues and canceling shows of anything perceived to be racist but, they won’t cancel Darwin’s programs or tear down his statues. [Last sentence removed due to its political stance.]
Douglas W.
A a brilliant and most necessary article. Many thanks!
Alf F.
One has to absolutely agree—every relic of Darwinism will have to fall with racism, because Darwinism is the supposedly scientific basis of racism, eugenics, socialism and the murder by right of force of 200 million people in the 1900s. Darwin has a lot to answer for. I have tried to point out the incongruency of the theory of evolution and a nonracial society before, but it is lost on most people, almost like a veil before their eyes. It would certainly cause an inner conflict if they thought about it carefully. The only characteristic that more closely resembles monkeys than other humans in ‘black’ people is the wider, flatter nose. Other than that, it would have to be claimed on cultural differences, and using the conduct of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, etc to judge by, that falls flat. However, fair-haired blue-eyed ‘whites’ are usually far more hairy than Africans, for instance, and have hair more like the fur of monkeys than Africans have. Racism is sin, and Darwinism is being used to justify that sin.

Comments are automatically closed 14 days after publication.