Darwinians Displayed Bones of Inferior Races in Museums
Displaying the bones of ‘inferior races’ in museums:
The whitewashing of Darwinism may be ending
by Jerry Bergman, PhD
One of the few positive changes that resulted from the recent protests in America has been a reexamination of Darwin’s racial legacy. It is well-documented that Darwinism was foundational to the flourishing of the so-called race science that birthed the “scientific racists.” The late Harvard Professor, Steven Jay Gould, coined the term “scientific racists,” for those who attempt to base their racism on science, especially Darwinism. The scientific racists believed that the most primitive human races, below even African Blacks, were the Hottentots and Australian aborigines. Charles Darwin, agreed and concluded that the “European view that . . . so-called Hottentot women provided a ‘somewhat primitive, grotesque nature of black female sexuality.’”
Darwin used the term Hottentots at least seven times in his writings. Explorer and author, John Barrows, saw the Hottentots as “the lowest of the low, a missing link between humans and apes.” They were not only regarded as racially inferior, but also as physically, intellectually, morally, and even culturally inferior. The term “Hottentot” comes from the Dutch who perceived the Hottentot South-African language of Khoekhoe primitive and ape-like, close to stuttering. One critical example of the legacy of the “scientific racists” was museum exhibits, some of which remain to this day. One of many examples is found in London’s Natural History Museum. As one new report stated,
The Natural History Museum will become the latest institution to review it’s [sic (should be “its”)] collections after an audit warned its Charles Darwin exhibitions could be seen as “offensive.” An internal review, sanctioned in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, has led to an audit into some rooms, statues, and collected items that could potentially cause offence [British spelling of “offense”]. It warns that collections which some may find “problematic” could include specimens gathered by Darwin.… Museum bosses are now desperately seeking to address what some staff believe are “legacies of colonies, slavery and empire” by potentially renaming, relabeling, or removing these traces in the institution.… documents seen by The Sunday Telegraph that “in light of … the recent anti-racist demonstrations around the world” the museum would undertake a review of existing room names and “whether any statues … could potentially cause offence.”
In short, research
further argues that “museums were put in place to legitimize a racist ideology”, that “covert racism exists in the gaps between the displays.” The executive board of the museum is understood to be “very engaged with the many issues and questions it highlights”. The great naturalist Darwin also has a statue in the museum’s main hall, and a large wing named after him.
Exhibit A: The Venus Hottentot Museum Exhibit
Saartjie (Sara) Baartman (c. 1789 –1815) was the best-known South African woman exhibited as a “missing link” under the name Hottentot Venus in 19th-century Europe. Baartman’s 20 some-year-old, 4-feet-10-inch-tall (147.3 cm) body was exploited by many leading scientists and others attempting to prove the evolutionary link between apes and humans. Baartman was so important to science that, throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, she was involved in “the great debates on evolution, race, and female sexuality.”
In 1810 she journeyed to England with her employer, William Dunlop, who supplied showmen in Britain with animals. For over four years visitors paid two shillings to gaze on her apelike body. Although Baartman died before Darwin published his famous book in 1859, evolution was widely believed by many intellectuals before then. Leading evolutionists included Charles’ paternal grandfather Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 – 1829). Darwin’s achievement was mostly to popularize the theory widely throughout the world.
The claims of a link between ape and modern man was used to prove not only evolution, but also race inferiority. Baartman was discussed in Arthur de Gobineau’s (1816 –1882) infamous racist book The Inequality of the Human Races. This book was “especially influential in the American South and in Germany in the decades that led to spectacle lynching and the Holocaust.” Baartman was also later exploited by Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, T. S. Eliot, H. G. Wells, James Joyce and “many others who knew or wrote of the Hottentot Venus, as did the most important writers on the so-called inferiority of the darker races.”
Georges Cuvier Investigates Her
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) was Europe’s most revered scientist and the founder and professor of the comparative anatomy department at the French Museum of Natural History. In the past, and even today, Cuvier remains a central figure in modern science, so central that “without Cuvier, Darwin may well not have discovered evolution.” It was Cuvier who carefully examined Baartman in his search for scientific evidence of the missing link between apes and humans. When Baartman died in December of 1815, at the age of 26, Cuvier conducted a dissection to learn more about evolution. Cuvier’s display of her remains in the Paris “Museum of Man” in support of evolution was a chief attraction there for more than a century.
The leading French anthropologist, Dr. Paul Topinard, wrote that, as is true of orangutans, her “ape smile” is very expressive. Furthermore, her movements kept “reminding one of those of the ape.” Her skeleton contained many animal traits, causing Topinard to conclude, “I have never seen a human head more like an ape than that of this woman.” Among the other evidence of intermediate status between an ape and human, the Hottentot cranial capacity was a whopping “82 cubic centimeters less than the Western negroes.”
When talk of removing the Baartman exhibit began, French naturalist and close colleague of Cuvier, Geoffroy Saint Hilaire attempted to retain her corpse on the grounds that “for us she remains a very important treasure” of science and proof for evolution. Hilaire concluded that the Khoisan people, of which Baartman was a member, “were closer to the great apes than to humans,” solidifying the racists’ worldview that culminated in the Holocaust.
Evidence Against Her Ape Status
In spite of efforts to exploit her by claiming she was physically in-between apes and humans, those who knew her agreed she was a multitalented woman in spite of her sparse level of formal education. Cuvier, who had interviewed Baartman when she was alive, noted that she was intelligent, her memory was very good, and, in addition to her native tongue, she spoke fluent Dutch, passable English, and a smattering of French. Cuvier conceded that she was a skilled dancer, and possessed a very un-ape lively, gregarious personality.18
Attempts to Atone for Her Despicable Treatment
The popular Baartman exhibit eventually elicited a chorus of complaints for degrading women. The skeleton was removed only in 1974, and her remains were returned to South Africa in 2002. Baartman is now a major symbol of discrimination and suffering caused by scientific racism and Darwinism.
Another Example: The Jewish Skeleton Collection
An extensive, detailed study of Jewish skeletons was undertaken by Nazi collaborators in an attempt to scientifically prove the racial inferiority of Jews. Involved in this project were the nation’s leading anthropologists, scientists, and medical professionals, all who supported the “innate superiority of the ‘Aryan’ folk” belief. What the scientists were looking for is unknown, but they believed that Jews were biologically inferior, so concluded that a careful study of their skeletons would find scientific evidence for this view based on Darwinism and that of other eugenicists.
The Nazis’ goal was to set up a museum display of these skeletons to help convince the public of Jewish inferiority. To do this, they attempted to collect skeletons of Jews murdered specifically for the collection. The scientists felt in life they displayed traits the Nazis believed was evidence of an inferior race. They concluded the Jews were Untermenschen (undermen or “sub-humans”), in contrast to the Aryans, which the Nazis considered Übermenschen (overmen, superior-humans, or supermen). The program was to carry out various scientific studies on race, especially members of what the leading scientists then determined were inferior races. The collection was sanctioned by Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler, and was under the direction of Dr. August Hirt and Dr. Rudolf Brandt.
Dr. Wolfram Sievers was responsible for procuring and preparing the corpses for the display of skeletons of inferior humans. The collection was part of the work of several eminent German anthropologists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. The Kaiser Wilhelm society was supported by many eminent scientists including the “scientific giants active at a time when Germany was a scientifically dominant nation. That era came to an abrupt end when Hitler rose to power and the Nazis ousted many of the best scientists because they were Jewish.
The individuals ultimately chosen for the anthropological display were obtained from a pool of Jewish inmates at Auschwitz in occupied Poland. They were not a representative sample of Jews, but were chosen specifically because their appearance conformed to the stereotypical inferior racial characteristics then attributed to those who were Jewish.
Due to a typhus epidemic among camp prisoners, the candidates chosen for the skeleton display were quarantined to prevent them from becoming ill and ruining their evolutionary anatomical value. In June of 1943, 115 persons were selected; 79 were male Jews, 30 were Jewesses, 2 were Poles, and 4 were Asiatics. These prisoners were “segregated by sex” and were “under quarantine in the two hospital buildings.” The victims selected were then sent to the Natzweiler camp near Strasbourg where the
Jewish men and women were gassed to provide anatomical specimens for the Jewish skeleton collection, an exhibit the Nazis hoped to display at the planned Reich University of Strasbourg to highlight the physical inferiority of the Jewish race.
When they were gassed the researchers installed a one-way mirror to allow the scientists to observe the deaths of the subjects, “as part of the necessary research,” to determine if inferior races die differently than superior races. One male victim fought so vociferously to keep from being gassed that he was ultimately shot.
The first step in the process of preparing them for the display was to make anatomical casts of the bodies prior to reducing them to skeletons. Their heads were not to be damaged, but separated from the body and forwarded to its “destination in a hermetically sealed tin can, especially produced for this purpose and filled with a conserving fluid” to preserve them for racial research.
The photos, measurements, and other data on the head, and tests on the skull itself, were to be used to help document the anthropologist evidence of the inferiority of this race. The following extract was read at the Nuremberg 140-day “Doctors’ Trial” which shows that, in spite of using a biased sample, the scientists realized that their research had failed to prove that Jews were Untermenshen: “We have a nearly complete collection of skulls of all races and peoples at our disposal. … the result that it is impossible to arrive at precise conclusions [about inferior races] from examining them.”
Drs. Brandt and Sievers were both indicted, tried, and convicted in the Doctors’ Trial in Nuremberg for murdering 112 Jews for the skeleton collection to be displayed at the Reich University. Both were hanged in Landsberg Prison on June 2, 1948. Many other professors were also tried and were given sentences ranging from death to long prison terms, all for their attempts to prove Darwinism true. Researchers have since learned most of the men and women selected for the inferior skeleton display had families and successful careers.
In 1951, the remains of all Jewish skeleton victims were re-interred in the Cronenbourg-Strasbourg Jewish Cemetery. On December 11, 2005, memorial stones engraved with their names were placed in the cemetery. Thus ended the attempt to use Darwinian “science” to prove the inferiority of certain races.
The claims of a link between ape and modern man to prove not only evolution, but also race inferiority, were part of Joseph Arthur de Gobineau’s (1816 –1882) infamous racist book Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. This book was “especially influential in the American South and Germany in the decades that led to spectacle lynchings and the Holocaust.” In short, beliefs about Hottentot Venus were important in helping to confirm to “Europeans the inferiority of the Hottentot and people with dark skins.”
Because their sample failed to prove their theory, the Germans had planned to obtain another sample to help them to achieve their Darwinian racist goal. The end of World War II abruptly terminated this fruitless quests. Many other examples of the display of “inferior races” could be cited, but these illustrate the valid concern of the drive to remove statues of Darwin and others involved in racial murdering from today’s public institutions.
 Gould, Stephen Jay. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., pp. 118-119.
 Holmes, Rachel. 2007. The Hottentot Venus. The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman (Born 1789-Buried 2002). London: Bloomsbury Publishing, p. 14.
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 Simpson, Craig. 2020. “Natural History Museum to review potentially ‘offensive’ Charles Darwin
Collection”. The Telegraph, September 5. Emphasis added.
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 Crais, C. and P. Scully. 2009. Sara Baartman and the Hottentot Venus: A Ghost Story and a Biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. 144.
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McDonald, Gabrielle Kirk and Olivia Swaak-Goldman. 2000. Substantive and Procedural Aspects of International Criminal Law: The Experience of International and National Courts, 1st edition. The Hague (Netherlands); Boston: Kluwer Law International.
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Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.