As longtime readers know, one of my abiding interests is how our culture today invokes “science” to justify morally suspect behavior and undertakings. In ages past, “religion” or “patriotism” would have been the go-to sources of authority, and of course often still are. The kind of people who cite the magisterial authority of Science tend to be the kind of people who are (properly) skeptical of religion or patriotism, but who misplace their hermeneutic of suspicion when the mantel of Science is draped over a thing.

A recurring post on this blog is my story of a Cambridge lecture I heard by the historian Gillian Beer, who focused on how competing factions in Victorian England appropriated the findings of Charles Darwin as justification for their own private ends, both good and bad (e.g., abolition of slavery, imperialism, eugenics). Her point was that science does not occur in a vacuum, and is always subject to manipulation and misinterpretation by fallible humans. We should therefore be very careful to examine motives — our own and those of others — instead of mindlessly accepting the authority of science, because science, through no fault of its own, can be used by those in authority to manipulate others to malicious ends.

Consider the story of Ota Benga. From the Guardian:

The black clergymen who had been summoned to Harlem’s Mount Olivet Baptist Church for an emergency meeting on the morning of Monday 10 September 1906, arrived in a state of outrage. A day earlier, the New York Times had reported that a young African man – a so-called “pygmy” – had been put on display in the monkey house of the city’s largest zoo. Under the headline “Bushman Shares a Cage With Bronx Park Apes”, the paper reported that crowds of up to 500 people at a time had gathered around the cage to gawk at the diminutive Ota Benga – just under 5ft tall, weighing 103lb – while he preoccupied himself with a pet parrot, deftly shot his bow and arrow, or wove a mat and hammock from bundles of twine placed in the cage. Children giggled and hooted with delight while adults laughed, many uneasily, at the sight.

In anticipation of larger crowds after the publicity in the New York Times, Benga was moved from a smaller chimpanzee cage to one far larger, to make him more visible to spectators. He was also joined by an orangutan called Dohang. While crowds massed to leer at him, the boyish Benga, who was said to be 23 but appeared far younger, sat silently on a stool, staring – sometimes glaring – through the bars.

The exhibition of a visibly shaken African with apes in the New York Zoological Gardens, four decades after the end of slavery in America, would highlight the precarious status of black people in the nation’s imperial city. It pitted the “coloured” ministers, and a few elite allies, against a wall of white indifference, as New York’s newspapers, scientists, public officials, and ordinary citizens revelled in the spectacle. By the end of September, more than 220,000 people had visited the zoo – twice as many as the same month one year earlier. Nearly all of them headed directly to the primate house to see Ota Benga.

His captivity garnered national and global headlines – most of them inured to his plight. For the clergymen, the sight of one of their own housed with monkeys was startling evidence that in the eyes of their fellow Americans, their lives didn’t matter.

Ota Benga’s plight was a dramatic moral failure of civic leaders and ordinary white citizens who failed to protest this outrageous stunt. Here, though, is the most interesting part of this story:

William Temple Hornaday, the zoo’s founding director and curator, defended the exhibition on the grounds of science. “I am giving the exhibition purely as an ethnological exhibit,” he said. The display, he insisted, was in keeping with the practice of “human exhibitions” of Africans in Europe, breezily evoking the continent’s indisputable status as the world’s paragon of culture and civilisation.

Unrepentant, Hornaday declared that the show would go on just as the sign said, “each afternoon during September” or until he was ordered to stop it by the Zoological Society. But Hornaday was not some rogue operator. As the nation’s foremost zoologist – and a close acquaintance of President Theodore Roosevelt – Hornaday had the full backing of two of the most influential members of the Zoological Society, both prominent figures in the city’s establishment. The first, Henry Fairfield Osborn, had played a lead role in the founding of the zoo and was one of the era’s most noted paleontologists. (He would later achieve fame for naming Tyrannosaurus rex.) The second, Madison Grant, was the secretary of the Zoological Society and a high-society lawyer from a prominent New York family. Grant had personally helped negotiate the arrangement to take Ota Benga.

What did The New York Times think of this? Why, the paper of record stood up for Science:

The clergymen had no success at the zoo, and left the park vowing to take up the matter the next day with the city’s mayor. But their complaint did catch the attention of the New York Times, whose editors were dismayed that anyone might protest against the display.

“We do not quite understand all the emotion which others are expressing in the matter,” the paper said in an unsigned editorial. “Ota Benga, according to our information, is a normal specimen of his race or tribe, with a brain as much developed as are those of its other members. Whether they are held to be illustrations of arrested development, and really closer to the anthropoid apes than the other African savages, or whether they are viewed as the degenerate descendants of ordinary negroes, they are of equal interest to the student of ethnology, and can be studied with profit.”

As the Guardian tells it, the “progressive men of science” in America justified Ota Benga’s treatment on scientific and educational grounds. And why not? For at least a generation, eugenic thought had taken hold of the nation’s top scientists, as well as its political and industrial elites. The dehumanization of Africans (“a degraded and degenerate race” a leading Harvard scientist called them) was what Progress and Science justified.

Read the entire Guardian piece.  As its writer, Pamela Newkirk, points out, the force of these ideas in popular culture — that is, the authority of science, the imperative of progress, and the soundness of eugenics — conspired to create a social environment that conditioned the people to gather guiltlessly at the zoo to gawk at a caged African man. Had not science instructed us that he was subhuman? Were not the leading white progressive clergymen of the era telling us that God smiled on eugenics?

Remember Ota Benga the next time somebody wields Science and Progress as a weapon to tear down our common humanity. And do not forget that many of us who stand in judgment of those barbarians who dehumanized Ota Benga are blind to see what similar acts and processes of dehumanization are going on right here, right now, in the name “Science” and “Progress.”