Reckoning With Human Zoos

And here they go again.

This “human zoos” documentary is a brilliant piece of attack journalism on the troubling past in the scientific community. But, to be fair, we have never fully or properly reckoned with that past, and because we didn’t, we left it open for them to come in and combine an accounting of our past sins with an all-out attack of evolutionary theory.


This is one of those moments we should step back from polemics. Let us pause and deal with our past sin for a moment. At that time, there was open racism everywhere, including in religious communities and among scientists. The thing about racism is that it can twist both science and scripture to its purposes. This is the inheritance of everyone, including scientists and christians.

Right now, there are people bemoaning the human disaster in the Catholic Church because of it’s affect on the institution, rather than morning the victims. One can bemoan both, but the victims are not mere rhetorical pawns. They demand our respect. The same is true here. That is why is important to pause from polemics at times, especially when greater things intrude.

@nlents, what would it look like for scientists to fully reckon with this history?

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I also know that race is difficult to talk about, but truth is a precondition for reconciliation. I can’t recommend the movie without screening it first. Considering the source, I’m concerned it will blame the zoos on evolutionary science, when there were several factors to blame. For now, the wikipedia article is a good starting point to learn more.

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I want to ask everyone on these forums to take this seriously. Honor the dead for whom we cannot make things right. Say something, don’t just let it pass unacknowledged.

I really don’t know besides the fact that it needs to be acknowledged, taught, and discussed and not just in history of science courses, ethics courses, but in science curricula. Also, this is somewhat separate but I think there is a connection… I don’t think it’s helpful that so many scientist have this hyper-rational identity about the kind of science that intersects with race. I’m thinking of Razib Khan, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, etc. (all of whom I deeply respect in just about all other ways). Harris bemoans identity politics, but seems to miss that his hyper-rationality is itself an identity that he’s very much invested in. That kind of how-can-it-be-offensive-if-its-true attitude is what got us into eugenics in the first place because it absolves people in their mind of any responsibility for the consequences of what they do and say. Sorry this was a bit rambling.


This seems like a very good start. @Jordan, @cwhenderson and you (and others here) are science educators. I wonder what the right pedagogy of this could be? I suspect we all need to educate ourselves first…

Yes, exactly. I talk about it in science and society type class and I also talk about the long history of racism and exploitation in medical research. But I’m no expert, that’s for sure.


Perhaps it makes sense as a topic for one of your future books. Honestly. I mean it. There isn’t really a place, a resource, or a textbook that guides scientists into understanding and reckoning with our inheritance here.

Man, this is a tough one. I agree with @NLENTS but it’s tricky to discuss something like this in the science curricula. One of the issues is that it will not commonly known among students, so you are immediately going to make people uncomfortable, and cast science in a negative light. Then you have to do the work of resolving “OK, so what does this mean and what do we do about it?”. I think that’s going to take some lengthy conversation.

On the other hand, I think this is exactly the type of work that scientists and theologians at Christian universities could do to move society forward. We have more of an ethical or moral platform and I think it could be a way to “be a positive force” and hopefully improve the view of Christianity that people like @Patrick have.

We are starting a Center for Science & Faith on my campus and this could be a good topic … maybe not a first topic though as it is a bit of a minefield.

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Why do you call it a minefield and shy away from it as the first topic? It seems more like an opportunity, with very high impact, that would serve the common good. It would also distinguish you from all the other faith-science centers out there. We could help you navigate the dangers ahead…

As you say…

Notice, also, @Philosurfer is already finding traction here in a context that parallels your own: Daniel Deen: Thank God for Evolution. This is, it seems, his first entry here, and he speaks of race and justice.

To be honest, because in science and theology we are an all-white faculty with a fairly diverse student population. Race is the most sensitive topic on campus and the one that faculty most fear. We know it’s an issue, we just do not have the training to feel comfortable talking about it much in our classes. Our campus has diversity initiatives ongoing, there is work being done, but I’m not sure I could convince faculty to tackle this one just yet.


Here is my suggestion. Include it from the beginning, but privately, as you do other things publicly. If you can create a safe space from the beginning to process together, you might gain the confidence to do things publicly down the line. We can help you too…

Is that possible?

Yes, and I’m taking some notes on this thread to start some conversations with the faculty. I do think having both private conversations amongst the faculty as well as the public conversations with students and community will be a good long-term strategy. We want to address topics that are more relevant to student interests than the usual “how old is the universe, and did God use evolution?”

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For reference, our world is insane. Apparently a group of people thought it reasonable to house pygmies in a zoo as recently as 2007.

So is the thought here something like the historical villages you see as an education tool. I remember going to “Colonial Williamsburg” in Virginia as a kid, it was awesome. So then somebody has the “brilliant” idea to do some sort of cultural anthropology version?

The idea of a human zoo is horrifying, but then I know several colleges that have “international” nights where students prepare food from their home country. Is the issue the objectification and/or treatment of people themselves like animals in a zoo or is it the message of the “science” behind the human zoo that is most objectionable?

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You are so right, but I do not believe that the issue surrounds how this is taught in the classroom at all. Anyone who spends five minutes teaching about the issue can convey that it is wrong. Anyone hearing the message should already know that it is wrong.

Think about suicide bombers and Islam. 99.99% of the population knows that suicide bombing is wrong and they are against such heinous acts. The PR problems begin when the reasonable majority associated with such actions don’t publicly condemn them. This leaves open the interpretation that silence equals acceptance, or worse, endorsement. So any pundit can point to the fact that millions don’t stand up and condemn what everyone knows to be wrong. The situation would be avoided by a mere display of humility.

The issue is similar in your realm, too. If you are honest, you will realize that, over time (maybe 150 years) there has been an attitude such that whatever is said in your realm is the gospel truth. Over the decades, paradigms shift and newer ideas become manifestations of the same general truth. But because, for the same 150 years, there have been enthusiastic detractors, there has been an attitude of unwillingness to publicly accept criticism or blame. Even if it is merely historical. Human nature gets in the way and when opportunities arise where the community as a whole should say, “We were 100% wrong about that one…” it doesn’t happen.

What needs to be done is that those, like Dr. Lents, who have a public voice, need to say the obvious things. Not in the classroom, but in public. That way, if the people on the other side of the issue (about whom you complain that they are unfair) don’t want to engage directly in conversation, that’s their choice. But if you continually and clearly articulate when and where the paradigm was wrong, no one can say anything negative… you’ve already said it all.

What was done in the past was wrong, but when everyone publicly agrees that its the case, we can all move on. You all can handle your damage control on the front end. People don’t expect perfection from anyone and, further, they desire to forgive most anyone who asks. So ask early and often and these stories will have no legs, because they will be unfounded.


If you read the stories, it should become clear. There is so much here that is offensive. Underlying it all is the scientific and theological belief of polygenesis, that different races were different biological types of “human” or not even “human” at all. That is how it began. It was also entwined with the politics of segregation, and common sense understanding that…[I’m not even going to repeat it here].

Do not shrink away. When engaging the brokenness of this reality, mistakes will often happen. Do not fear. Minorities are usually very thankful to people who apologize and make things right, working to understand. It is a whole different thing when things like this take place. Something different took place here.

The Zoo in 1906

Take a look at this quote from wikipedia on a human zoo about 100 years ago, in 1906 in New York. Note of the response to black pastors protesting the zoo.

In 1906, Madison Grant—socialite, eugenicist, amateur anthropologist, and head of the New York Zoological Society—had Congolese pygmy Ota Benga put on display at the Bronx Zoo in New York City alongside apes and other animals. At the behest of Grant, the zoo director William Hornaday placed Benga displayed in a cage with the chimpanzees, then with an orangutan named Dohong, and a parrot, and labeled him The Missing Link , suggesting that in evolutionary terms Africans like Benga were closer to apes than were Europeans. It triggered protests from the city’s clergymen, but the public reportedly flocked to see it.[10][19]

Benga shot targets with a bow and arrow, wove twine, and wrestled with an orangutan. Although, according to The New York Times , “few expressed audible objection to the sight of a human being in a cage with monkeys as companions”, controversy erupted as black clergymen in the city took great offense. “Our race, we think, is depressed enough, without exhibiting one of us with the apes”, said the Reverend James H. Gordon, superintendent of the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum in Brooklyn. “We think we are worthy of being considered human beings, with souls.”[20]

New York City Mayor George B. McClellan Jr. refused to meet with the clergymen, drawing the praise of Hornaday, who wrote to him: “When the history of the Zoological Park is written, this incident will form its most amusing passage.”[20]

As the controversy continued, Hornaday remained unapologetic, insisting that his only intention was to put on an ethnological exhibition. In another letter, he said that he and Grant—who ten years later would publish the racist tract The Passing of the Great Race —considered it “imperative that the society should not even seem to be dictated to” by the black clergymen.[20]

On Monday, September 8, 1906, after just two days, Hornaday decided to close the exhibition, and Benga could be found walking the zoo grounds, often followed by a crowd "howling, jeering and yelling."[20]

This was not an innocent an ethnographic exhibit about people from a distant land that backfired. It was part of a myth-making exhibit, a story of origins, to explain why black people were segregated at that time. Remember, this is during segregation. Rather than engaging the black people in their midst to understand story, they put tribal people into a zoo to tell the their story as they understood it. When black people protested, they did not listen.

The Zoo in 2007

That was a long time ago. However, you will see echoes in the recent stories. They rhyme with the old stories. Here is a quotes from the article in 2007:

Other artists at the Festival of Pan-African Music (Fespam) are staying in hotels in the capital, Brazzaville. The organisers say the grounds of Brazzaville zoo are closer to the pygmies’ natural habitat. But the pygmy musicians say they had expected to be housed properly while staying in the city.

It is the fifth year they have performed at the festival and previously they have been treated the same as other guests. But this year the group of 20, including 10 women and a three-month-old baby, were given one tent to share in the city’s zoo. A spokeswoman for Fespam said the decision was made in consultation with the Forestry Ministry, so that the pygmies would not be cut off from their “natural environment”.

This was not an education tool. It is obscene. Adding to the insult, this was decided in consultation with a large number of people, and was not fixed immediately when they pygmies protested. Children were subjected to this abuse. This reveals something truly dark about the nature of society.

Do Not Fear

If something this egregious can happen in full view, consider what else happens that is not clear or big enough to hit the news.

This an important point to consider. Do not be afraid to engage these issues. Well meaning mistakes are forgiven. Part of what adds to the injury is when real protests are ignored. Mistakes are forgiven when they are quickly fixed, well-meaning, and lead to understanding. Even when real sin is uncovered, remember that racists are redeemable too.

Remember Ota Benga

Finally, respect the dead. It is important to know Benga’s story, and to honor him and remember. He was one of us. Any of us could have been him.

Ota Benga (c. 1883[1] – March 20, 1916) was an Mbuti (Congo pygmy) man, known for being featured in an anthropology exhibit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904, and in a human zoo exhibit in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo. Benga had been purchased from African slave traders by the missionary and anthropologist Samuel Phillips Verner,[2] a businessman searching for African people for the exhibition.[3] He traveled with Verner to the United States. At the Bronx Zoo, Benga had free run of the grounds before and after he was exhibited in the zoo’s Monkey House.

He began to plan a return to Africa, but the outbreak of World War I in 1914 stopped ship passenger travel. Benga fell into a depression, and he committed suicide in 1916.[4]

This man, a human being, he committed suicide, trying to find his way home. He died place ten years after being exhibited in New York, where @NLENTS is a professor. He died twelve years after being exhibited in St Louis, where I am a professor. He was 33 years old.


Honestly, I had not thought a thing like a human zoo was possible. I guess it I could imagine it in the height of the eugenics era, but I wouldn’t have imagined it in an actual zoo and certainly not past the 1930’s.

These stories definitely need to be told, but I do think it’s too simple to have an “easy” answer. Conservative Christians will say “see, this is the product of evolutionary thinking”, scientists will mostly brush it under the rug as an unsightly episode, and the general public would probably have a knee-jerk political reaction.

It’s a lot harder to look at ourselves, our own history, our discipline’s history, and to acknowledge those failings, ask for forgiveness, and work towards repairing the harm.


I’ll question this. Sorry if it takes us a bit off topic.

I saw recently saw a similar comment, except this comment was about the excesses of some of the religious right in the US. And the commenter complained that liberal Christians don’t publicly condemn them.

Yet I follow several blogs by liberal Christians, and they did strongly condemn the particular behavior. It’s just that their condemnation did not get much press.

So now I wonder about that 99.9% of the Islamic population. Maybe they did publicly condemn the heinous acts, but the press failed to give their condemnation much attention.


@Michael_Callen the problem is not that we can’t see it’s wrong, it is that we forget we are all capable of evil like this. Also, if you start engaging in conversation with others, especially in private, you might be shocked about the evil about which others are untroubled. Education is one only piece of the puzzle, but it is an indispensable piece.

What find so informative about this conversation is that we cannot even conceive of the evil we can visit on our neighbors, because we never take the time to look, understand, and remember.

That is the issue, and it isn’t @Jordan’s fault. The natural response is to look away from these things, and focus on happier thoughts. We do not know because no one told us. We forgot who we are, and what we inherited. We are more likely to repeat such things in new and creative ways. Of course, our ways will be understandable to us, and our consciences will not be troubled. That is what makes it all the more important to remember.

On this it is easy to blame it on the press, or wonder why others do not decry something enough. This, however, is not a PR problem, and it does not call for a public performance. At a funeral, there are no awards for who gives the best eulogy. A truthful reckoning brings us to real sadness, whether we win the PR war or not, whether or not others join us there. There is much here to grieve, and there is no way to make restitution.

Honest and wise leaders do not look away. They remember, and they tell the stories, so others can remember too.

Yes, this needs to be done, but also more. Things like this can’t be about saving the paradigm, or taking cheap shots at evolution. We all have a public voice, not just @NLENTS and myself. There is something important an humanizing about these stories too. We do real good by empathetically retelling the stories, recognizing that the victims and the perpetrators could have been any of us. We, actually, are no better than them. If we are not careful, we might find new creative ways to do the same. Maybe we already have.

To be clear, this is not to make anyone feel guilty. I am an Indian, with dark skin, and I am including myself in this too. It just a part of our collective story. There is good and bad in our inheritance. To receive our inheritance, we have to remember both.