It’s a Small World
How did scientists enter the story of race?
Once, a long time ago, I floated around the earth in the space of minutes.
I was on a ride at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, in Florida; my little sisters and I were perched alongside each other in a slow mechanical boat, buoyed by sugar. “It’s a Small World (After All)” chimed in tinny children’s voices, while minuscule automata played out cultural stereotypes from different countries. From what I can recall, there were spinning Mexicans in sombreros and a ring of African dancers laughing alongside jungle animals. Indian dolls rocked their heads from side to side in front of the Taj Mahal. We sailed past, given just enough time to recognize each cultural stereotype, but not quite enough time to take offense.
This long-forgotten vignette from my childhood is what comes back to me on the drizzly day I approach the eastern corner of the Bois de Vincennes woodland in Paris. I had heard that somewhere here I would find the ruins of a set of enclosures in which humans were once kept—not as cruel punishment by the authorities, and not by some murderous psychopath. Apparently they were just ordinary, everyday people, kept here by everyday people, for the fascination of millions of other everyday people, for no other reason than where they happened to come from and what they happened to look like.
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun,” the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote in 1973. These webs are ours only until someone comes along to pull at the threads. The nineteenth century was an age marked by unprecedented movement and cultural contact that turned the world into a smaller place than it had ever been. It was less mysterious, perhaps, but no less fascinating. And people wanted to see it all. So in 1907 the grand Colonial Exposition was held at an overgrown site in Paris within the Bois, the Garden for Tropical Agriculture, recreating different parts of the world in which France had its colonies.
Eight years earlier, in 1899, the garden had been founded as a scientific project to see how crops might be better cultivated in the tropics and thus help to bring in more income for colonizers back in Europe. This exposition went a step further. To exotic plants and flowers it added people, displaying them in houses vaguely typical of the ones they might have left behind, or at least what Europeans imagined them to be. There were five mini “villages” in all, each designed to be as realistic as possible so visitors could experience what normal life was like for these foreigners. It was an Edwardian Disneyland, not with little dolls but with actual people.
They transformed the tropical garden into nothing less than a human zoo.
“In Paris, there were many exhibitions with human zoos,” I’m told by the French anthropologist Gilles Boëtsch, former president of the scientific council at the National Center for Scientific Research, who has studied their dark history. There was a circus element to it all; it was a cultural extravaganza. But there was also a genuine desire to showcase human diversity, to give a glimpse of life in the faraway colonies. According to some estimates, the 1907 Paris exposition attracted two million visitors in the space of just six months—it was a hit with curious citizens who wanted to see the world in their backyard.
Wherever they were held, most evidence of the human zoos has long disappeared, most likely deliberately forgotten. The Garden for Tropical Agriculture is one rare exception. That said, the French authorities don’t appear to want to brag about it. It’s tucked behind some quiet and well-to-do apartment blocks with barely any signposting. Greeting me as I enter is a Chinese arch that was once probably bright red, but has since faded to a dusty gray. As I walk under it, down a gravel path, the place is peaceful but dilapidated. To my surprise, most of the buildings have survived the last century fairly intact, as though everything was abandoned immediately after the visitors left.
To one side is a weathered sculpture of a naked woman, reclining and covered in beads, her head gone, if it was ever there at all. A solitary jogger runs past.
For European scientists, zoos like this offered more than fleeting amusement value. They were a source of biological data, a laboratory stocked with captive human guinea pigs. “They came to the human zoos to learn about the world,” explains Boëtsch. Escaping the bother of long sea voyages to the tropics, anatomists and anthropologists could conveniently pop down to their local colonial exhibition and sample from a selection of cultures in one place. Researchers measured head size, height, weight, and color of skin and eyes, and recorded the food the subjects ate, documenting these observations in dozens of scientific articles. With their notes they set the parameters for modern race science.
Race was a fairly new idea. Some of the first known uses of the word date from as recently as the sixteenth century, but not in the way we use it now. Instead, at that time it referred to a group of people from common stock, like a family, a tribe, or perhaps—at a long stretch—a small nation. Even up until the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, many still thought about physical difference as a permeable, shifting quantity. It was rooted in geography, perhaps explaining why people in hotter regions had darker skins. If those same people happened to move somewhere colder, it was assumed their skins would automatically lighten. People could shift their identity by moving away or converting to another religion.
The notion that race was a hard and fixed feature that people couldn’t choose, an essence passed down to their children, came slowly, in large part from Enlightenment science. The eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, famous for classifying the natural world from the tiniest insects to the biggest beasts, turned his eye on humans. If flowers could vary by color and shape, then perhaps humans could also be classified into groups. In the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, a catalogue he published in 1758, Linnaeus laid out the categories we still use today. He listed four main categories of human, corresponding to the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa, respectively, and each easy to spot by their color: red, white, yellow, and black.
Categorizing humans became a never-ending business. Every gentleman scholar (and they were almost exclusively men) drew up his own dividing lines, some going with as few as a couple of races, others with dozens or more. Many never saw the people they were describing, instead relying on secondhand accounts from travelers, or just hearsay. Linnaeus himself included two separate subcategories within his Systema Naturae, monsterlike humans and feral humans. But once defined, these “races” rapidly became slotted into hierarchies based on the politics of the time, character being conflated with appearance, and political circumstance becoming a biological fact. For example, Linnaeus described indigenous Americans, his “red” race, as having straight black hair and wide nostrils, but also as being “subjugated,” as though subjugation were in their nature.
And so it began. By the time human zoos were a popular attraction—when the ghostly enclosures I’m walking around in the Bois de Vincennes were not eerily empty as they are now but full of performers, when I more likely would have been inside a cage than outside it—the parameters of human difference had become hardened into those we recognize today.
Paris wasn’t the only city to enjoy this type of spectacle, of course. Other European colonial powers hosted similar events. Indeed by the time of the 1907 Paris exposition, human zoos had been around for more than a century. In 1853 a troupe of Zulus made a grand tour of Europe. Even earlier, an advertisement in London’s Morning Post newspaper of September 20, 1810, signaled the arrival of one of the most notorious of all racial freak shows. “From the Banks of the River Gamtoos, on the Borders of Kaffraria, in the interior of South Africa, a most correct and perfect Specimen of that race of people,” it announced. The “Hottentot Venus,” as she was described, was available for anyone to take a peek, for a limited time only and at the cost of two shillings. Her real name was Saartjie Baartman, and she was aged somewhere between twenty and thirty. What made her so fascinating were her enormous buttocks and elongated labia, considered by Europeans to be sexually grotesque. Calling her a “Venus” was a joke at her expense.
The Morning Post took pains to mention the expense shouldered by a Boer farmer, Hendric Cezar, in transporting Baartman all the way to Europe. He was banking on her body, which caused a scandal. She had been Cezar’s servant in Africa, and by all accounts she had come with him to Europe of her own free will. But it’s unlikely that the life she endured as his traveling exhibit was what she expected. Her career was brief and humiliating. At each show she was brought out of a cage to parade in front of visitors, who poked and pinched to check that she was real. Commentators in the press couldn’t help but notice how unhappy she seemed, even remarking that if she felt ill or unwilling to perform, she was physically threatened. To add to the humiliation, she became, quite literally, the butt of jokes across the city, rendered in relentless caricature like a Twitter meme of Kim Kardashian.
At the end of her run, Baartman ended up in Paris. She fell at the mercy of a celebrated French naturalist, Georges Cuvier, who was a pioneer in the field of comparative anatomy, which aims to understand the physical differences between species. Like so many before him, he was spellbound by her—but his was an anatomist’s fascination, one that drove him to undertake a detailed study of every bit of her body. When she died in 1815, just five years after being displayed in London, Cuvier dissected her, removing her brain and genitals, and presented them in jars to the French Academy of Sciences.
As far as Cuvier was concerned, this was just science and she was just another sample. The prodding, cutting, dehumanizing fingers of researchers like Cuvier sought only to understand what made her and those like her different. What gave some of us darker skin and others light? Why did we have different hair, body shape, habits, and language? If we were all one species, then why didn’t we look and behave the same? These were questions that had been asked for decades already, but it was nineteenth-century scientists who really turned the study of humans into the most gruesome art. People became objects, grouped together like museum exhibits. Any sense of common humanity was left at the door, replaced by the cold, hard tools of dissection and categorization.
Following a lifetime of being relentlessly poked and prodded, Baartman continued to be on show for a hundred and fifty years after her death. Her abused body ended up at the Musée de l’Homme, the Museum of Man, near the Eiffel Tower; a plaster cast of it stood there until as recently as 1982. It was only in 2002, after a request from Nelson Mandela, that her remains were removed from Paris and finally returned to South Africa for burial.
“In the modern world we look to science as a rationalization of political ideas,” I’m told by Jonathan Marks, a genial, generous professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is one of the most outspoken voices against scientific racism. Race science, he explains, emerged “in the context of colonial political ideologies, of oppression and exploitation. It was a need to classify people, make them as homogeneous as possible.” Grouping people made it easier to control them.
It is no accident that modern ideas of race were formed during the height of European colonialism, when those in power had already decided on their own superiority. By the nineteenth century, the possibility that races existed and some were inferior to others gave colonialism a moral kick in the drive for public support. The truth—that European nations were motivated by economic greed or power—was harder to swallow than the suggestion that the places they were colonizing were too uncivilized and barbaric to matter, or that they were actually doing the savages a favor.
In the United States, the same tortured logic was used to justify slavery. The transatlantic trade in slaves officially ended when the United Kingdom passed the Slave Trade Act in 1807; the United States banned the import of slaves the following year. But within the United States the trade continued, and the use of slave labor wouldn’t stop for many decades more. Black bodies were plundered both in life and in death. For instance, the corpses of black slaves were routinely stolen or sold for medical dissection. Daina Ramey Berry, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who has documented the economic value of slavery in the United States, notes that there was a brisk trade in dead black people in the nineteenth century, some of which were exhumed by their owners for a quick profit. It’s ironic that much of our modern scientific understanding of human anatomy was built on the bodies of those who were considered at the time less than human.
“If you could say that the slavers were naturally distinct from the slaves, then you have essentially a moral argument in favor of slavery,” says Marks. Given this distinction, many feared that the abolition of slavery would set free the human zoo, unleashing chaos. In 1822 a group calling itself the American Colonization Society bought land in West Africa to establish a colony named Liberia, now the Republic of Liberia, motivated largely by the desperate dread that freed black slaves would want to settle among whites, with the same rights. Repatriation to the continent of their ancestors seemed like a convenient solution, ignoring that after generations in slavery, most black Americans simply didn’t have a tangible connection to Africa anymore—let alone to a new country that their ancestors most likely had never seen.
Louis Agassiz, a Swiss naturalist who had been mentored by Georges Cuvier and moved to the United States in 1846, argued passionately against blacks being treated the same as whites. Shaken by such an intense physical disgust toward black domestic workers serving him food at a hotel that he almost couldn’t eat there at all, he became convinced that separate races originated in different places, and possessed different characters and intellectual abilities.
Responsibility for being enslaved was turned back on the slaves themselves. They were in this miserable, degrading position not because they had been forcibly enslaved, it was argued, but because it was their biological place in the universe. At a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Plymouth in 1841, an American slave owner from Kentucky, Charles Caldwell, had already claimed that Africans bore more of a resemblance to apes than to humans. In their 1854 book Types of Mankind, an American physician, Josiah Clark Nott, and an Egyptologist, George Gliddon, went so far as to sketch actual comparisons between the skulls of white and black people alongside those of apes. While the typical European face that they drew was artfully modeled on classical sculpture, African faces were crude cartoons, with exaggerated features that made it seem they had more in common with chimpanzees and gorillas than with humans.
Propelled by a belief that black people had their own unique diseases, Samuel Cartwright, a medical doctor practicing in Louisiana and Mississippi, in 1851 characterized what he saw as a mental condition particular to black slaves, which he coined “drapetomania,” or “the disease causing Negroes to run away.” Harvard University historian Evelynn Hammonds, who teaches Cartwright’s story to her students, laughs darkly when she recounts it: “It makes sense to him, because if the natural state of the negro is to be a slave, then running away is going against their natural state. And therefore it’s a disease.”
For Hammonds, the chilling aspect of Cartwright’s work is the way in which he methodically described the symptoms of drapetomania. “‘The color of the skin is the main difference,’” she reads for me from her notes, “‘the membranes, the muscles, the tendons, all fluids and secretions, then the nerves, and the bile. There’s a difference in the flesh. The bones are whiter and harder, the neck is shorter and more oblique.’” Cartwright continues this way, couching racism in medical terminology. “These kinds of observations turned into questions to be explored going forward,” says Hammonds. “Since the 1850s, people have been trying to figure out if black bones are harder than white bones.” Cartwright’s medical “discoveries” were patently rooted in the desire to keep slaves enslaved, to maintain the status quo in the American South, where he lived. In place of universal humanity came a self-serving version of the human story in which racial difference became an excuse for treating people differently. Time and again, science provided the intellectual authority for racism, just as it had helped define race to begin with.
Race science became a pastime for nonscientists, too. The French aristocrat and writer Count Arthur de Gobineau, in An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races, published in 1853, proposed that there were three races, in what he saw as an obvious hierarchical relationship. “The negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder. . . . His intellect will always move within a very narrow circle,” he stated. Pointing to the “triangular” face shape of the “yellow race,” he explained that this was the opposite of the negroid variety. “The yellow man has little physical energy, and is inclined to apathy. . . . He tends to mediocrity in everything.”
Neither could be a match for his own race.
Reaching his predictable pinnacle, Gobineau wrote, “We come now to the white peoples. These are gifted with reflective energy, or rather with an energetic intelligence. They have a feeling for utility, but in a sense far wider and higher, more courageous and ideal, than the yellow races.” His work was a naked attempt to justify why those like him deserved the power and wealth they already had. This was the natural order of things, he argued. He didn’t need hard evidence for his theories because there were plenty of people around him ready and willing to agree that they, too, belonged to a superior race.
Later, Gobineau’s ideas helped reinforce the myth of racial purity and the creed of white supremacy. “If the three great types had remained strictly separate, the supremacy would no doubt have always been in the hands of the finest of the white races, and the yellow and black varieties would have crawled forever at the feet of the lowest of the whites,” he wrote, promoting a notion of an imaginary “Aryan” race. These glorious Aryans, he believed, had existed in India many centuries ago, had spoken an ancestral Indo-European language, and had since spread across regions of the world, diluting their superior bloodline.
Myth and science coexisted, and both served politics. In the run-up to the passage in 1865 of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, the race question wasn’t resolved—it just became thornier. Although many Americans believed in emancipation on moral grounds, fewer were convinced that full equality would ever be possible, for the simple reason that groups weren’t biologically the same. Even Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln believed that blacks were inherently inferior to whites. Jefferson, himself a slaveholder, agreed with those who thought that the solution to the problem of what to do with freed slaves was to send them to a colony of their own. Freedom was framed as a gift bestowed on unfortunate black slaves by morally superior white leaders, rather than as a reflection of a hope that everyone would one day live alongside one another as friends, colleagues, and partners.
Not all scientists, of course, were quite so self-serving. For those who wanted to establish the facts about human difference, there were unanswered questions. The biggest puzzle was that there was no fleshed-out mechanism for how different races—if they were real—might have emerged. If each race was distinct, then where did they each come from, and why? Going by the Bible, as many Europeans did, one explanation for the different races was that, after the big flood, Noah’s children spread to different parts of the Earth.
In 1871 the naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin published The Descent of Man, sweeping away these religious creation myths and framing the human species as having one common ancestor many millennia ago and as having evolved slowly like all other life on earth. After studying humans across the world, their emotions and expressions, he wrote, “It seems improbable to me in the highest degree that so much similarity, or rather identity of structure, could have been acquired by independent means.” We are too alike in our basic responses, our smiles and tears, our blushes, to have different origins. On this point alone Darwin might have settled the race debate. He demonstrated that we could only have evolved from shared origins, that human races didn’t emerge separately.
And on a personal level, this was important to him. Darwin’s family included two influential abolitionists, his grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood. He himself had seen the brutality of slavery firsthand on his travels. When the naturalist Louis Agassiz, in the United States, spoke about human races as having separate origins, Darwin wrote disparagingly in a letter that this must have come as comfort to slaveholding Southerners. A central tenet of the antislavery movement was that humanity is one, that we share the same blood.
But the abolitionists’ conviction wasn’t the last word on the subject. Darwin still struggled with the notion of equality when it came to race. Like Abraham Lincoln, who was born on the same day as Darwin, he opposed slavery but was also ambiguous on the question of whether black Africans and Australians were strictly equal to white Europeans. He left open the possibility that, even though we could all be traced back to a common ancestor, populations may have diverged since then, producing levels of difference. As the British anthropologist Tim Ingold notes, Darwin saw gradations between the “highest men of the highest races and the lowest savages.” He suggested, for example, that the “children of savages” have a stronger tendency to protrude their lips when they sulk than European children, because, similar to chimps, they are closer to the “primordial condition.” The historian Gregory Radick at the University of Leeds notes that Darwin, even though he made such a bold and original contribution to the idea of racial unity, also seemed to be unembarrassed by his belief in an evolutionary hierarchy. Men were above women, and white races were above others.
Mixed with the politics of the day, this was devastating. The uncertainty around the biological facts left more than enough room for ideology to be mixed with real science, leading to the fabrication of fresh racial myths. Brown and yellow races were a bit higher up, some argued, not unlike Darwin did. Whites were the most evolved—and by implication, the most civilized and the most human. What was seen as the success of the white races became couched in the language of the “survival of the fittest,” which carried the implication that the most “primitive” peoples, as they were described, would inevitably lose the struggle for survival as the human race evolved. Ingold argues that even Darwin himself began to frame evolution as an “imperialist doctrine of progress,” rather than seeing it as acting to make a species better adapted to its particular environment.
“In bringing the rise of science and civilisation within the compass of the same evolutionary process that had made humans out of apes, and apes out of creatures lower in the scale, Darwin was forced to attribute what he saw as the ascendancy of reason to hereditary endowment,” writes Ingold. “For the theory to work, there had to be significant differences in such endowment between ‘tribes’ [and] ‘nations.”’ For hunter-gatherers to live so differently from city dwellers, the logic goes, it must be that their brains had not yet progressed to the same stage of evolution.
Adding fuel to this bonfire of flawed thinking (after all, we now know that the brains of hunter-gatherers are no different from those of anyone else) were Darwin’s supporters, some of whom happened to be fervent racists. The English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog,” argued that not all humans were equal. In an 1865 essay on the emancipation of black slaves, he wrote that the average white was “bigger brained,” asserting, “The highest places in the hierarchy of civilization will assuredly not be within the reach of our dusky cousins.” For Huxley, freeing slaves was a morally good thing for white men to do, but the raw facts of biology made the idea of equal rights—for women as well as for black people—little more than an “illogical delusion.” In Germany, too, Darwin’s loudest cheerleader was Ernst Haeckel, who taught zoology at the University of Jena beginning in 1862 and was a proud nationalist. He liked to draw connections between black Africans and primates, seeing them as a kind of living “missing link” in the evolutionary chain that connected apes to Europeans.
Darwinism did nothing to slow racism. Instead, ideas about the existence of different races and their relative superiority just became repackaged in new theories. Science—or the lack of it—in the end legitimized racism, rather than quashing it. Whatever real and worthwhile questions might have been asked about human difference were unavoidably tainted by politics and economics.
I pick my way through a high thicket of bamboo and find an intricate wooden pagoda.
Farther still in the sunlit Garden for Tropical Agriculture is a Tunisian house, coated in thick green moss. If their histories were unknown to me, I might find the buildings in this quiet maze beautiful. They are grand and otherworldly, ethereal relics of foreign places as imagined by another age. But of course I’m acutely aware that each was also once a kind of home to real people like me, pulled from their lives thousands of miles away for the entertainment of paying visitors. As a reminder, through the smashed window of a Moroccan castle, complete with battlements and blue tiles, I’m caught off-guard by a glaring red face that must have been painted by vandals.
However beautiful they are, these aren’t homes at all. They’re gilded cages.
It’s hard to imagine what life would have been like on the inside of the human zoos, looking out. The people kept here weren’t slaves. They were paid, similar to actors under contract, but were expected to dance, act, and carry out their everyday routines in public view. Their lives were live entertainment. Little effort was made to make the people feel comfortable in their temporary homes, much less to acclimatize them. After all, the whole point of this spectacle was to underscore just how different they were, to imagine that even in a cold climate they would choose to walk around in as few clothes as they wore in a hot one, that their behavior couldn’t change, no matter where they lived. Visitors were made to believe that the cultural differences were woven into their bodies like stripes on a zebra. “When there was a birth, it meant a new show,” Gilles Boëtsch from the National Center for Scientific Research tells me. People would flock to see the baby.
Science had created a distance between the viewers and the viewed, the colonizers and the colonized, the powerful and powerless. For those confronted with people from foreign lands in this way, bizarrely out of context, referenced in a book, or transplanted in some fake village in Paris, it only helped reinforce the notion that we were not all quite the same. As visitors peered into their homes, the performers in human zoos must have been curiosities not just because they looked and behaved differently but also because control of their lives belonged to others who didn’t look like them. The ones on the outside of the cage were clothed, civilized, and respectable, whereas those on the inside were seminaked, barbaric, and subjugated.
“People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed,” write the American scholars Karen Fields and Barbara Fields in their 2012 book Racecraft. They explain how a sense of inevitability gets attached to a social routine until it comes to be seen as natural. The idea of race didn’t make people treat other people as subhuman. They were already treated as subhuman before race was invoked. But once it was invoked, the subjugation took on a new force.
Something about treating human difference as a science gave it a peculiar quality. Observing humans turned the humans being observed into strange beasts. While maintaining the unimpeachable impression of scientific objectivity, somehow the scientist himself always turned out to be the gold standard of beauty and intelligence. His own race was safe in his hands. The German naturalist Johann Blumenbach idealized the Caucasian race, to which he belonged, but described Ethiopians as being “bandy-legged.” If legs were different, there was never any question that it was Caucasians who might be the unusual ones. The creatures caged in the human zoos were those who had failed to reach the ideal of white European physical and mental perfection.
The scientific distance created by believing that racial hierarchies existed in nature, this uneven balance of power, allowed human zoos to treat their performers as less than equals, making life for them fatally precarious. According to Boëtsch, many who lived in the zoos died from pneumonia or tuberculosis. Concerns were expressed in the press. There were always protests, as there had been about Saartjie Baartman, but they made little difference.
In another example, around the same time that the Paris exposition was held, a Congolese “pygmy” named Ota Benga, who had been brought to the United States to be displayed at the St. Louis World’s Fair, was installed in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo in New York, without shoes. Visitors loved him. “Some of them poked him in the ribs, others tripped him up, all laughed at him,” the New York Times reported. He was eventually rescued by African American ministers, who found him a place in an orphanage. Ten years later, in despair because he couldn’t return home to the Congo, Benga borrowed a revolver and shot himself through the heart.
As I stand among the weeds and crumbling former homes of Paris’s human zoo, it’s difficult not to see that the reason anyone pursued the scientific idea of race was not so much to understand the differences in our bodies as it was to try to justify why we lead such different lives. Why else? Why would something as superficial as skin color or body shape matter otherwise? What the people who created the human zoos really wanted to know was why some people are enslaved and others free, why some prosper while others are poor, and why some civilizations have thrived while others haven’t. Imagining themselves to be looking objectively at human variation, in fact scientists were often looking for answers in our bodies to questions that existed far outside them. Race science had always sat at the intersection of science and politics, of science and economics. Race wasn’t just a tool for classifying physical difference but was also a way of measuring human progress, of placing judgement on the capacities and rights of others.