Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Darwinian Stupidity

In 1906, Ota Benga, a 4' 11", 103 lb. African "pygmy" (actually a Bushman) was brought to America and put on display as an exhibit at the Bronx Zoo.  Pamela Newkirk, director of undergraduate studies at New York University's Arthur Carter Journalism Institute and recent author of Spectacle:  The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga, encapsulates Ota Benga's life and times in a CNN article "When the Bronx Zoo exhibited a man in an iron cage."

The main thrust of her article is the usual bugbear of 21st century America:  Ota Benga was made a zoo exhibit because of racism, presumably white racism because, as all progressives can tell you, that's the only type of racism there is. 

Only half her article is about Ota Benga; the rest is an examination of the "resonance of racism," citing examples as:  a recent report from the Sentencing Project decrying "the widespread and deep-seated tendencies among whites to link blacks with criminality;" a report from the ACLU stating that in Maryland, police killed 75 blacks between 2010 and 2014, "nearly half" of which were unarmed; and the great icons of victimhood, from Rodney King, to Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin.

Never mind, apparently, that the Sentencing Project's study was based on a video simulation; or that "nearly half of which were unarmed" is just another way of saying "more than half of which were armed"; or that Rodney King, after leading police on an 80-mph chase through residential neighborhoods out of fear that a DUI charge would violate his parole for a previous robbery conviction, resisted arrest when finally cornered and launched himself at the police; or that the medical examiner stated unequivocally that Eric Garner did not die from a chokehold; or that Michael Brown robbed a convenience store and threated to attack the clerk before his confrontation with the police; or that Trayvon Martin was the belligerent in his fight with George Zimmerman.  No, the resonance of racism is the real problem, if only because of its easy appeal--an alliterative catchphrase trumps having to judge matters on a case-by-case basis.

But Newkirk is wrong from the start. Ota Benga was not made a zoo exhibit because of racism, but because of Darwinism.

Contrary to popular myth, Darwin did not formulate evolutionary theory. By the mid-19th century, the notion of evolution was already firmly entrenched in the minds of most biologists. Darwin's grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, published Zoönomia in 1796, which contained a chapter foreshadowing modern evolutionary theory.  Charles Darwin's contribution was in claiming he had uncovered the mechanism driving evolutionary change, namely, natural selection operating in tandem with what he called "the laws of heredity" (later reformulated in the modern neo-Darwinian synthesis as "random genetic mutation").  It is the selection/mutation criterion that constitutes his theory.

According to Darwin, evolutionary change is gradualistic -- one minor modification here, one useful function there, and, given enough time, an organism can grow from one species to another entirely different species.  Under the selection/mutation criterion, notions such as special creation could be discarded.  An oft-cited example supporting the criterion is the modern whale, which fossil evidence suggests emerged from a now-extinct land animal resembling a cow. Whales are modified cows.

Further, due to the gradualistic nature of evolutionary change, modifications are oftentimes so slight as to be imperceptible. What matters is that the modification is useful, providing an organism with an advantage over rival species.  Any advantage, however slight, increases an organism's chances for survival.  Survival of the Fittest, bien sur.

Ota Benga became a zoo exhibit, not as Newkirk claims from "a callous disregard for Benga's humanity," but out of the Darwinian claim that Benga represented a living testimony to the gradual nature of evolutionary change.  On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man make this abundantly clear.  Under Darwin, all living species were part of a continuum of descent with modification.  Benga's humanity was not disregarded; rather the very notion of "humanity" was called into question inasmuch as humans were demoted from beings created Imago Dei to mere animals, and since humans were categorically not created equally, demarcations within the animal species homo sapiens were mere matters of being "more" or "less" evolved than one another.

In Origin of Species and especially Descent of Man, Darwin spoke often and proudly of "favoured races." Modern evolutionary biologists like to believe that by "races" Darwin really meant "species," and there are indeed passages in his books that support this claim.  But elsewhere there are passages where "races" clearly meant races, particularly in Darwin's many discussions of "civilized" versus "uncivilized" man.

By "civilized," of course, he meant white people, particularly European white people, and particularly particularly British European white people, who were the most civilized of us all. Nor was Darwin alone in his claim. The British Empire extended across the globe, out of a smug, pious belief that being British was simply the Best Thing To Be, and that everyone else should be grateful for all the civilization being shoved down their throats.  "Rule, Britannia!" was natural superiority on display.

An examination of Edgar Rice Burroughs's novel Tarzan of the Apes is illustrative. An infant abandoned to the wilds of the African jungle, one would assume, would likely die, yet Tarzan not only survived, he thrived, becoming "King of the Jungle." Why? The answer lies in the fact that Tarzan was born Lord Greystoke, a member of British nobility, which in Darwin's world was the pinnacle of human evolution. Thus, Tarzan thrived not because he was white but because he was evolutionarily superior to all else, whether ape or native African.

Likewise Benga was caged like an animal because, according to Darwin, he was an animal, lower down the evolutionary continuum than his "civilized" counterparts. Newkirk, seeing the world only in terms of racism, even addresses this point herself, but overlooks its significance.  She writes:

Four years before Benga's exhibition, "The Basis of Social Relations: A Study in Ethnic Psychology," published by G.P. Putnam's Sons in New York and London as part of the Webster Collection of Social Anthropology, said that Africans were "midway between the Oran- utang [sic] and the European white." It added: "The African black presents many peculiarities which are termed 'pithecoid' or ape-like."

"Midway" between orangutans and Europeans is another way of saying "less than Europeans" and thus less than human. "Europeans" are "civilized." "Africans" are "uncivilized" and therefore inferior on an evolutionary scale, if Darwin is correct.

And, if Darwin is correct, how is it wrong to cage an African in a zoo, if the African in question is not exactly a human being? We cage bears in zoos. We cage elephants and rhinos. Why not exhibit a specimen halfway between an orangutan and a European?


Well, because Darwin is wrong, of course.

In propositional logic there is a valid rule of inference called modus tollens, Latin for "the way that denies by denying."  If A entails B, so that B is a logical extension of A, then if B is found to be wrong, we can reasonably conclude that A is wrong as well.

Shall we do the math?