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’.

Published: 10 August 2020

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.

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