"Exhibited each afternoon during September."
August 7, 2006 6:16 AM   Subscribe

Bought from a slave trader and put on display at the Bronx zoo: the strange, sad story of Ota Benga, a Pygmy with filed teeth brought from the Congo to America in 1906. Here are a couple of contemporary news accounts of the controversial exhibit. After the zoo, Benga tried to make a life in America, studying to be a missionary. "But what he really wanted to do was to tell everyone in this country that his people were dying, and why. I think he thought that eventually they'd listen. But they never did. That, to me, is the real tragedy." In 1916, at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, performed a final tribal dance, and shot himself with a stolen pistol. Creationists say the story illustrates "the racism of evolutionary theory" and "the horrors that evolutionary theory has brought to society."
posted by CunningLinguist (35 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for including the obligatory "insane Christian" link. Nicely supplements the story and is totally relevant.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:20 AM on August 7, 2006

Actually, it is kind of interesting that Creationists would have the point of view (on this, or any related story). I never thought of the evolutionary theory as inherently racist, but I can certainly see in practice how it could lend itself to patronization, even subjugation of those seen as "less evolved".

Interesting story, CL. You've managed to give me second thoughts about the metaphorical pygmy I keep trapped in my heart. I think I'll release him now, before things get worse.
posted by jonson at 6:29 AM on August 7, 2006

Actually, I thought the creationist link was interesting, though logically flawed. I bet the creationists wouldn't appreciate the same logic applied to the countless atrocities done in the name of Christ.
posted by eustacescrubb at 6:31 AM on August 7, 2006

I'd say a crazy Christian rant on the very topic of the post, itself a fascinating and disturbing tale, is pretty damn relevant, unless you happen to be an easily-offended Crazy Christian type.

There's a fine book on Ota Benga by Phillips Bradford. More people do need to know this story. But the "evolutionism" to which it refers has nothing to do with modern biological theory. Many Americans still hold fast to the discredited 19th century form of social evolutionism Ota Benga was supposed to illustrate (including, apparently, many readers of the New York Times, to judge from the ease with which NYT writers toss around social Darwinist concepts).
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:31 AM on August 7, 2006

Jonson, there's a difference between social Darwinism, which has almost no relation to modern evolutionary theory, and scientific evolutionary theory. A big difference.

No respected biologist seriously thinks that the "races" of homo sapiens (with "race" itself a discredited and useless concept) differ in any substantial sense on an evolutionary scale. We're one species. It took modern evolutionary science to discredit the casual racism of the social evolutionists, in fact.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:34 AM on August 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I thought the creationist link had some of the best historical detail. And the "racist Darwin" angle is one I hadn't heard and found interesting as hell.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:35 AM on August 7, 2006

Ok. Sorry for the snark. At first glance, it appeared to be bible-baiting. I've read all the links and it's interesting to see how the loobies completely confuse Social Evolution with Darwinism.
I humbly apologize. Please commence with the mocking.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:39 AM on August 7, 2006

unfortunately, many creationists at different times probably wouldn't have considered him human.
posted by milarepa at 6:43 AM on August 7, 2006

If the sad story of Ota Benga is enough to discredit evolution, then the desperate living conditions of Tsarist Russia are clearly sufficient grounds for a Bolshevist Revolution.

You have nothing to lose but your chains, Comrades!
posted by illovich at 6:44 AM on August 7, 2006

jonson, An irrational group, like christians & racists, grabs ahold of any idea which seem vaguely useful: Social Darwinism died long ago, but Creationism remains alive & always loves a new strawman.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:46 AM on August 7, 2006

Thanks, fourcheesemac, for your concise delineation: the social evolutionists and modern evolutionary science are not the same thing, by a long shot. The creationist's attempt to equate the modern day science of evolution with racism, or indicating that racism is the natural result of scientific evolutionary theory is clearly the result of confused thinking (at best) or intellectual smoke and mirrors (at worst). I'd say it's most likely the latter.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:47 AM on August 7, 2006

I thought the creationist link had some of the best historical detail. And the "racist Darwin" angle is one I hadn't heard and found interesting as hell.
I'm not going to make a claim for Darwin either way, but the article doesn't seem to establish the racism of Darwin very conclusively at all, but rather rehashes standard stuff about how evolution as a theory was appropriated by racists and other elitists to form Social Darwinism:
Darwin was understood to have shown that when left to itself, natural selection would accomplish extinction. Without slavery to embrace and protect them, or so it was thought, blacks would have to compete with Caucasians for survival. Whites' greater fitness for this contest was [then believed] beyond dispute. The disappearance of blacks as a race, then, would only be a matter of time (1992, p. 40). - http://www.creationresearch.org/crsq/articles/30/otabenga.html
Note that the quote says nothing about Darwin's beliefs regarding race, only how he was (mis)understood by others.
posted by illovich at 6:51 AM on August 7, 2006

Creationist often point to eugenics as another example of the racist nature of evolutionary theory (discussed on this site not too long ago). Bad reasoning abounds.

Poor Ota Benga is all I can say. What a sad story.
posted by Tullius at 6:56 AM on August 7, 2006

Highly recommended: Ota Benga: the Pygmy in the Zoo, co-authored by Phillips Verner Bradford, the grandson of Samuel Phillips Verner who brought Ota Benga to America. Bradford writes of his grandfather,

Verner said he "could write a volume about Ota Benga, and some day... may do so." If he had ever gotten around to delivring on this promise, his book would have had to encompass his own origins--his grandfather had been a slaveowner in South Carolina, and his father, afther the Civil War, a militant white supremacist. It would have had to devote some pages to late nineteenth-century Africa, a continent barely recovering from the ravages of the slave trade only to suffer the deeper and perhaps still more destructive encroachments of colonialism.

Bradford has a clear memory of his grandfather telling him, "No one, including you, gets to choose your own parents."
posted by ibeji at 7:12 AM on August 7, 2006

c.f. slave narratives
posted by stbalbach at 7:24 AM on August 7, 2006

Ota Benga, the Congo pygmy, -who has been leading the simple life In the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, at 1550 Bean Street, Brooklyn, since he was rescued from the monkey house In the Bronx Zoo last September by the combined efforts of the negro clergymen of Greater New York, had a chance to go back to the jungle yesterday with his discoverer, Prof. S. p. Verner. Ota didn't care to renew his acquaintance with the simian residents of Central Africa, so the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which carried tho members of the Congo expedition out yesterday without him.

posted by ninjew at 7:33 AM on August 7, 2006

There is (or used to be) a wax sculpture of Ota Benga at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.
posted by billysumday at 7:35 AM on August 7, 2006

Funny, i thought the existance of slavery and the support of slave institutions in the world's holy texts was proof that if god exists then it is highly immoral and supports victimization and injustice.
"[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God...it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation...it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts." Jefferson Davis, President, Confederate States of America
posted by the ghost of Ken Lay at 8:16 AM on August 7, 2006

Balrog, I've had my disagreements with you in the past, but that was very gracious. Kudos to you for bringing some civility to the blue.
posted by The Bellman at 8:25 AM on August 7, 2006

I think he thought that eventually they'd listen. But they never did.

posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:48 AM on August 7, 2006

I could've sworn I read about this on MeFi recently, but it must've been elsewhere because I wasn't on here in 2002. :-)
posted by echo0720 at 8:56 AM on August 7, 2006

p.s. I linked to the old thread b/c I just thought you all might find those links interesting as well.
posted by echo0720 at 8:58 AM on August 7, 2006

illovich: the article doesn't seem to establish the racism of Darwin very conclusively at all.

Here you go:
At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time, the anthropomorphous apes. . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla. ... It has often been said ... that man can resist with impunity the greatest diversities of climate and other changes; but this is true only of the civilized races. Man in his wild condition seems to be in this respect almost as susceptible as his nearest allies, the anthropoid apes, which have never yet survived long, when removed from their native country.

The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex; The Works of Charles Darwin, D. Appleton and Company, New York (First edition by AMS Press, 1972), pp. 241-242.
posted by No Robots at 9:20 AM on August 7, 2006

posted by tadellin at 10:06 AM on August 7, 2006

In a country where you have religious lunatics programming their own children for holy war (see here), "insane Christian" is ENTIRELY appropriate every damn time we come across those fucknugget crazies trying to use their religion as a tool against others.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:20 AM on August 7, 2006 [2 favorites]

“The Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted,” Mr. Gordon said.

Hm. 2006, meet 1906. I'm sure you'll recognize each other.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:37 AM on August 7, 2006

Although he was treated more kindly, the story of Ishi (and his cultural mentor Alfred Kroeber*) is similar and no less tragic.

*Kroeber's daughter is Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, who wrote the 1973 Hugo award-winning novella, The Word for World is Forest.
posted by cenoxo at 12:02 PM on August 7, 2006

Funny. I had heard that, in his own life, -- and by the standards of his own age -- Darwin was fairly anti-racist. I had heard that he led a mini-mutiny during his voyage to the Galapagos to protest brutal treatment of non-white sailors. I also remember a passage of his where he described an Incan noblewoman who murdered two of her children and committed suicide to avoid falling into Spanish slavery, compared her to an ancient Roman matriarch and said that only racial prejudice could prevent the reader from seeing the connection between the two.

It's been a while. My recollections are a little fuzzy. If I'm wrong about any of the above, feel free to jump in and correct me.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:45 PM on August 7, 2006

Interesting connection:
From the wiki
"At the behest of Madison Grant, a prominent scientific racist and eugenicist, Hornaday (the zoo's director) placed Ota Benga in a cage with an orangutan and labeled him 'the missing link'"

Madison Grant: Grant's "Passing of the Great Race" was introduced into evidence by the defense of Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician and head of the Nazi euthanasia program, in order to justify the population policies of the Third Reich.
posted by Merik at 12:57 PM on August 7, 2006

"at the postwar Nuremberg Trials."

Accidentaly cut that off beginning the second wiki quote
posted by Merik at 1:00 PM on August 7, 2006

What the hell? Evolution as racist? Were the slave traders and holders of early American evolutionists? I doan thin so.

Creationism gives a static view of the races and can easily justify the superiority of one over another, whereas evolutionary theory would suggest that each race is optimal for its environment, with no inherent hierarchy.

I think these Creationists is smoking the wacky tobacky.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:07 PM on August 7, 2006

Well, ok. I'll stick my neck out on this one.

Many early evolutionists were racist, and evolution was considered to be compatible with pre-existing concepts regarding race and class. But then again, many Christians of the time also were racist spinning Biblical interpretations that identified Europeans as the children of Israel. The inferiority of other ethnic groups was taken for granted by both camps. White reformers advocated for civil rights and equality out of protectionism and pity, while still insisting on informal segregation and expecting different outcomes.

Now, we have evidence that shows our divisions of the human population into separate races is naive and lacking in empirical support. Now, we have evidence that class divisions economic rather than biological. To 19th and 20th century biologists raised within social class systems, these two claims were as radical as quantum physics and relativity.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:57 PM on August 7, 2006

I'd also like to throw in that whether or not people have used evolution to support racism has absolutely no bearing on whether or not it is true. Either it happened or it didn't, and that is all that matters as far as whether or not it is accurate. Corrospondingly, whether the evidence says it happened or not is all we should care about when deciding whether or not we accept the theory.
posted by Mitrovarr at 5:48 PM on August 7, 2006

Is this a joke? Creationism against racism? Ask any thumper about the Curse of Ham.
posted by telstar at 11:27 PM on August 7, 2006

For those of you who swear that you just read about this last week, note that the New York Times had an article about a week ago about a recently discovered archive of weird letters to the mayor, and one of the letters was from the zoo director encouraging the mayor to ignore the protesting "negro ministers". I dunno if it was posted here, but that's the connection you're thinking of.
posted by intermod at 5:32 AM on August 10, 2006

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