Darwin’s Dirty Secret Lives On

A recent book on evolutionary theory fails to reckon with the social side of natural selection.


In 1904, thousands of indigenous people were brought to the St. Louis World’s Fair to be put on the-anthropology-days-at-the-1904-olympics.html” target=”_blank” class=””>public display. Scientists offered them as examples of lower stages of human evolution. Some were even presented to the public as “missing links” between humans and apes.

Two years later, an African named Ota Benga was exhibited in a cage next to an orangutan in the Bronx Zoo primate house. The display attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors. It also drew protests from Black and white clergy. Black minister James Gordon attacked the presentation for propagandizing on behalf of Darwinian evolution, which he regarded as “absolutely opposed to Christianity.”

“Neither the Negro nor the white man is related to the monkey, and such an exhibition only degrades a human being’s manhood,” he declared.

Scientific and cultural elites, meanwhile, saw nothing wrong.

Leading evolutionary biologist Henry Fairfield Osborn of Columbia University praised the zoo exhibit, while The New York Times complained it was “absurd to make moan over the imagined humiliation and degradation” of Benga. The Times took special umbrage at Gordon’s skepticism of evolution: “The reverend colored brother should be told that evolution, in one form or other, is now taught in the text books of all the schools, and that it is no more debatable than the multiplication table.”

Only recently have many members of the scientific community begun to grapple with evolutionary biology’s disturbing past. Last year, the science journal The American Naturalist published an article acknowledging that “the roots of evolutionary biology are steeped in histories of white …

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