I recently came across this video on YouTube and remembered that I had written about human zoos in my first book.
At the end of the 19th and into the beginning of the 20th century, human zoos were set up at the many different world’s fairs as a way to display social Darwinism. These zoos, while having a certain amount of entertainment value to the crowds, were actually scientific endeavors. The Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893 was a primary example of this scientific theory put on display.
Along the Midway, fair-goers could walk through the evolutionary history of man. Beginning with the African race and moving forward through the red and yellow races, villages were set up and people of color were put on display. The exhibit ended with the European villages and culminated with the glorious “White City,” which was the final goal toward which humanity was moving.
This wasn’t a sideshow; it was the latest science! Since the goal of the fair was to showcase humanity’s progress, the best minds were put to the task.
To lend anthropological legitimacy to their enterprise, Chicago’s exposition directors placed the Midway under the nominal direction of Harvard’s Frederic Ward Putnam, who had already been chosen to organize an Anthropology Building at the fair.
Putnam envisioned the Midway as a living outdoor museum of “primitive” human beings that would afford visitors the opportunity to measure the progress of humanity toward the ideal of civilization presented in the White City. (1)
Putnam was a student of Louis Agassiz, the influential Harvard professor who embraced scientific racism and immersed a whole generation of students in its precepts. Scientific racism (a.k.a. polygenism) was the belief that each of the races had different parents (not just Adam and Eve). In contrast, the belief that all the races came from one set of parents was called “monogenism.”
Thomas Jefferson, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Voltaire were all polygenists. The abolitionists were monogenists. They based their beliefs on Acts 17:26, which says God “hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.
In polygenism, racial subjugation was defended because some of the races could be considered to be sub-human. In Darwinism, darker races were less evolved. Supposedly, the lighter the skin, the more evolved the race was.
When Darwinian evolution made the claim that all life evolved from a common ancestor, monogenism became vogue again, and scientists abandoned polygenism and flocked to the new scientific view.
Regardless, neither polygenism, nor Darwinism placed the darker races in a position of equality with the lighter races, but monogenism, as taught by Bible-believing Christians, taught that all races came from “one blood,” which meant that people with darker skin were human beings just like people with lighter skins.
The impact of social Darwinism, although rarely heard of today (perhaps due to the embarrassment felt by the scientific and intellectual community for supporting it), was widespread. In 1864, the Atlantic Monthly declared that Herbert Spencer (who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” and is considered to be the founder of social Darwinism) was a “power in the world” and that he represented the “scientific spirit of the age.” (2)
And yet, Herbert Spencer was wrong and those who trusted in the truth of the Bible were right. In fact, while social Darwinism’s proponents (of whom Hitler is counted) are rarely remembered, those who stood on the Word of God (Wilberforce, Newton, the Clapham Sect, Douglass, and Garrison) are now our heroes.
(1) Robert W. Rydell, “World’s Columbian Exposition,” Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago Historical Society, 2006), http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1386.html (accessed 08/11/2008).
(2) Joseph L. Graves, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 75.