Darwinism’s pygmy in the zoo

In the movie “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” the protagonist befriends an African pygmy who says that he was once exhibited in a zoo. That is an allusion to something that actually happened to a pygmy named Ota Benga. In 1906, he was put in a cage in the monkey house at the Bronx Zoo. This was the bright idea of the distinguished conservationist and naturalist William Temple Hornaday. He was the great-great-great-uncle of Washington Post journalist Ann Hornaday, who writes about her relative and the sad story of Ota Benga in A Critical Connection to the Curious Case of Ota Benga. In the course of her account, she reminds us that Darwinism is not just a scientific account of the origin of species, but that it has profound worldview and ethical consequences:

It was most likely in the spirit of both Barnum and Darwin that Temple hit on the disastrous idea of putting Benga in the cage. The display, marketed with the right mix of sensationalism and pseudoscientific pretense, would have the double benefit of bringing in throngs of visitors to the zoo and advancing Darwin’s theories, with Benga cast as the missing link. Ironically, it was on both those counts that black church leaders expressed outrage upon hearing of Benga’s captivity. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough without exhibiting one of us with the apes,” one minister wrote to New York’s mayor, George McClellan (son of the Civil War general). Furthermore, he added, “the Darwinian theory is absolutely opposed to Christianity, and a public demonstration in its favor should not be permitted.”

That black minister knew the logical consequences of Darwinism. Yes, materialists CAN treat other human beings kindly, but the point is, there is no basis for doing so. To use the words of Thomas Jefferson, if there is no Creator, we are not created equal, and there is no one to endow us with inalienable rights. Rights no longer have a transcendent foundation; instead, they are “alienable,” something changeable and arbitrary, equally capable of being granted or taken away.

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  • Carl Vehse

    In 1993 Phillips Verner Bradford and Harvey Blume wrote a book, OTA: The Pygmy in the Zoo (Dell Publishing). Bradford was the grandson of African explorer Samuel Verner, who brought Ota Benga to the Bronx Zoo director, William Hornaday, for display.

    Here’s a follow-up excerpt on Ota, after his release from the zoo, from an article, Ota Benga: The Story of the Pygmy on Display in a Zoo, by Jerry Berman:

    He became a Christian, was baptized, and his English vocabulary rapidly improved. He also learned how to read-and occasionally attended classes at a Lynchburg seminary. He was popular among the boys, and learned several sports such as baseball (at which he did quite well). He later ceased attending classes and became a laborer on the Obery farm for 10 dollars a month plus room and board (Bradford and Blume,1992, p. 204). The school concluded that his lack of education progress was because of his African ‘attitude” when actually probably “his age was against his development. It was simply impossible to put him in a class to receive instructions … that would be of any advantage to him” (Ward, 1992, p. 14). He had enormous curiosity and a drive to learn, but preferred performance tests as opposed to the multiple choice kind.

    Every effort was made to help him blend in (even his teeth were capped to help him look more normal), and although he seemingly had adjusted, inwardly he had not. Several events and changes that occurred there caused him to become despondent. He checked on the price of steamship tickets to Africa, and concluded that he would never have enough money to purchase one. He had not heard from Verner in a while, and did not know how to contact him. Later employed as a laborer in a tobacco factory in Lynchburg, VA, he grew increasingly depressed, hostile, irrational, and forlorn. When people spoke to him, they noticed that he had tears in his eyes when he told them he wanted to go home. Concluding that he would never be able to return to his native land, on March 20, 1916 Benga committed suicide with a revolver (Sanborn, 1916).

  • Thanks, Carl, for that extra information.

  • he should have sued the zoo for ship fair at a minimum! It is a tragic story.

  • FW

    is this any worse than what Jefferson and his ilk did to millions of slaves as a deist spouting off about the necessity of believing in a higher power. along with christians who twisted the bible to support selling off family members like animals. forbidding slaves to marry. forced abortions. unpunished murders. etc etc etc etc etc.

    it looks like sin in general is more to blame than godless philosophical underpinnings from what i can tell from history….

    If I understand your underlying premise or thesis correctly, I don´t see my way to accepting it.

    conversely, aristotle and the stoics were highly moral. I am not at all sure that they really believed in god or even gods…. besides is it merely important to believe in any ol god? shiva? animism? voodoo gods? Where does this all take us?

    yes. there is a basis for non-deists to be moral. that basis is given by god. it is not all that important that non-deists realize this I don´t think. it is the conscience written in men´s hearts. that universal conscience is what makes missionary work possible . it is the nexus between the church and the unchurch.

    early american jurists in fact believed that the study of law was a kind of science. that lawyers “discovered” the universal laws that already existed by using their logic. this is not really different than how the greek philosophers looked at things.

    a non religious person would not argue right or wrong exactly but rather a good being replaced by a higher good.

    aristotle does this very thing when he argues that vengeance is a “good” that is surrendered in favor of having laws that provide an even higher “good”.

    I do see your point. this can be dangerous in fact. nazism or communism anyone??

    But not inevitably so.