Learning from the Failures of Science

The following is from Kairos Journal.  This tragic story raises some simple questions for me:

  1. What “scientific conclusions” might our generation be equally embarrassed about in the future?
  2. What issues in our time is the Church, late to the game in standing up for justice?
  3. Will we learn anything from history?
  4. Irony: “White Supremacy” is rooted in a “scientific mistake.”

The article is below:

Ota_Benga_1904Evolution and Racism: Apes to Men or Men to Apes?

The Primates House was the main attraction at the famous Bronx Zoological Gardens in 1906. [Just 115 years ago.] 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.1 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, as 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.2 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.3 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 4Ota 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 States to participate in an anthropology exhibit at the St. Louis World’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 in New 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.4 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.


1.  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).
2.  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.
3.  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.
4.  For example see Kairos Journal article, “Kind but Blind—Southern Churches and Slavery, 1850s.”

2 thoughts on “Learning from the Failures of Science

  1. Fascinating. I had never heard this story before.

    My father is an ethnic German who believes the Aryan race is the pinnacle of evolutionary superiority, Hitler did not go far enough, the Jews got what they deserve, and blacks are subhuman. His natural hardworking provision for his own children was laced with arrogance towards “lesser races”. In my teenage rebellion at age 16-18 all my school friends were Jewish- it was the only way to escape. Thank God He saved me at 18.

    I find it difficult to read or respect Christian evolutionists anymore. I can tolerate the theistic ones like Keller who believe that at some point in time God breathed a soul into a primate and there was a first Adam from whom all mankind came. I don’t agree but I can tolerate such a view. But the evolutionists…..bad enough that they deny inerrancy and Paul’s teaching in Romans, but I wonder if they realize what mental doors they open to superior and inferior races in their Darwinian tree.


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