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.
The following is from Kairos Journal. This tragic story raises some simple questions for me:
- What “scientific conclusions” might our generation be equally embarrassed about in the future?
- What issues in our time is the Church, late to the game in standing up for justice?
- Will we learn anything from history?
Evolution and Racism: Apes to Men or Men to Apes?
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.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, 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.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.