by Julie Borg, World
The protests and riots that erupted across the United States following the death of George Floyd started a new chapter in the long history of racial discrimination and reconciliation. One chapter often goes unnoticed in that history: the racism of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Race-based discrimination has multiple sources, many of which preceded Darwin, but evolutionary theory gave “a powerful push to a scientific version of racism that still impacts us today,” said John West, vice president and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.
In his 1871 book The Descent of Man, Darwin depicted Africans as less evolved than white people. The mainstream scientific community in Europe and the United States accepted that characterization and used it to promote racial discrimination.
“For generations, American public school children learned from their biology textbooks the pseudoscience that Caucasians are more advanced on the evolutionary ladder than Africans,” David Klinghoffer, another senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, wrote for Evolution News and Science Today.
The academic institutions’ racism seeped into popular society, as West traces in his documentary Human Zoos: America’s Forgotten History of Scientific Racism. Former Association for the Advancement of Science President William McGee transported thousands of indigenous people from around the world to display in a “human zoo” at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. The exhibits described them as a kind of missing link between apes and humans to demonstrate the truth of evolution. The journal Science published an article by McGee making a similar argument. Organizers set up such human exhibits in places like New York City and Seattle to educate the public on Darwin’s theory.
Four decades after the United States outlawed slavery, Samuel Phillips Verner purchased a young Mbuti pygmy man named Ota Benga from slave traders in the Congo for the World’s Fair exhibit. In 1906, officials at the Bronx Zoo in New York City put Benga in a cage with an orangutan. When two African American clergymen raised objections to his inhumane treatment, The New York Times responded with an article assuring people that “the pygmies … are very low in the human scale,” Klinghoffer noted.
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