Human Zoos and the Mismeasure of Man

If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

This line from Charles Darwin’s famous work, Voyage of the Beagle, is both epigraph and theme of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which is, in short, is a well-argued and well-written refutation of scientific racism and biological determinism.

I first read the book when it was published around fifteen years ago, but my interest in it was recently rekindled when I read about a museum exhibit that recently opened in Paris  at the musée du quai Branly. This exhibit titled “Human Zoos: The invention of the savage,”

… unveils the history of women, men and children brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America to be exhibited in the Western world in circus numbers, theatre or cabaret performances, fairs, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages or international and colonial fairs. The practice started in the 16th Century royal courts and continued to increase until the mid-20th Century in Europe, America and Japan.

…Through 600 items and the screening of many film archives, the exhibition shows how this type of performance, when used as propaganda and entertainment, has fashioned the Western perspective and deeply influenced a certain perception of the Other for nearly five centuries.

In chapter four of Mismeasure of Man, Gould writes about how the introduction of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century transformed the way Europeans looked at issues pertaining to race. Although racism was not new, the scientific justification for it was, if not entirely new, at least given greater weight. For example, Ernst Haeckel*, through his recapitulation theory (“ontology recapitulates phylogeny”) maintained that an individual, through its own growth, passed through a series of stages that each represented adult ancestral forms in the order in which we passed through them, in other words, that “an individual, in short, climbs its own family tree.” Haeckel’s theory would provide the backbone of many scientific theories of racism, allowing “scientists” and thinkers such as Vogt, Cope, and, of course, Herbert Spencer, creator of “Social Darwinism,” to provide quantitative and scientific substantiation for their various racial classification and ranking systems. Spencer summarized recapitulation in 1895:

The intellectual traits of the uncivilized . . . are traits recurring in the children of the civilized.

That other, non-European races were “just like children” was no longer simply a bigoted adage, it now represented a scientific belief that “inferior people” were literally not as evolved as superior (white, European) groups. It provided a seemingly scientific justification for that ever-present Victorian paternalism that was epitomized in Rudyard Kipling’s poetic apology of white, European supremacy, “White Man’s Burden.” 

Take up the White Man’s Burden

send forth the best ye breed

go, Bind your sons to exile

to serve the captive’s need:

To wait, in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild-

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris

Victorian “scientific” ideas of race provided a firm ground from which to justify colonial expansion and European imperialism. These ideas also provided a rationalization for what would emerge next, ethnological expositions, or human zoos. Although the practice of placing humans on display was as old as our contact with other cultures, the nineteenth century practically institutionalized the it through these expositions, which became increasingly popular in Europe and North America during this time. From London, to Paris, to Chicago, non-white people were being displayed and exploited for the entertainment and “edification” of those in attendance.

A French print entitled "La Belle Hottentot," depicting Saartjie Baartman. The European observers remarks include "Oh! God Damn what roast beef!" and "Ah! how comical is nature."

Individuals such as Saartjie Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), whose body was exhibited and studied throughout Europe during her life, and dismembered and still displayed after death, is perhaps one of the most recognizable examples of this practice, as is perhaps Ota Benga, the pygmy that was kept on display at New York’s Bronx Zoo, and whose short life ended in suicide.  Of personal interest (and subject of an upcomming post) is “Little Egypt,” who was featured in 1893 at the Egyptian Theater in the World’s Columbian Exposition Midway in Chicago. At the time she was objectified and was the source of lewd curiosity, but she was also the one responsible for introducing what would eventually be recognized as Belly Dance to the West.

For Europeans and North Americans, their experiences with this kind of objectification and exhibition of human beings, paired with the pseudo-scientific theories of race that gained much popularity during the nineteenth century shaped their perceptions of both themselves and whatever was conceived as “the other.” Although this aspect of our collective history is, and should be, a source of shame, it should not be forgotten, as we have not rid ourselves of the cultural “baggage” that we acquired during that time. While the current exhibition at the quai Branly museum has had its share of controversy, it does serve as an important reminder of where many of our destructive ideas pertaining to race have come from. As echoed in the line by Darwin that I started this post with, our institutions have shaped our ideas of “otherness,” and have directly led to our current bigoted and prejudiced views. Our sin is, in this regard, very great.

*For an excellent intellectual biography of Ernst Haeckel, take a look at Robert J. Richards’ The Tragic Sense of Life: Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought. I read it several months ago and loved it.

8 thoughts on “Human Zoos and the Mismeasure of Man

  1. This is a great post. It reminded me of two things.

    1) sorry for such a vague statement but I remember that during the French Revolution many philosophers and thinkers of the time wrote about this. Even though they portrayed themselves as enlightened and forward thinking, they were horrible racists. I can’t think of specific pieces off the top of my head but I’m sure some googling will lend an answer.

    2) mentioning Haeckel reminded me of this documentary: Flock of Dodos.

  2. I recommend reading R. Garland-Thomson’s essay, “The Cultural Work of American Freak Shows”. Not sure if you have access to JSTOR or Questia. It is unsettling how pervasive ethnocentrism was (perhaps still is), and how people will treat other human beings like mere animals because of race or any kind of “difference” for that matter.

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