Fueling the Fire of “Scientific” Racism

Freakshow—from Missing Links to Lycanthropes, Part 3

by Calvin Smith on November 8, 2021
Featured in Calvin Smith

The exploitation of people as sideshow freaks helped propagate an insidious belief: “scientific” racism.

The demeaning exploitation of people as sideshow freaks (see part 2) helped propagate a much more insidious belief which gained steam and became normalized in Western society—the belief in scientific racism.

The result was the eugenics movement and resultant horrors of the Holocaust and other genocides.

Scientific Racism

Darwin’s publications catalyzed scientific racism into mainstream acceptance, justifying the belief that some people were less human while others were superior—higher on the evolutionary ladder than some more primitive and less developed races.

Even the American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science Dr. Steven J. Gould admitted,

Biological arguments for racism may have been common before 1859, but they increased by orders of magnitude following the acceptance of evolutionary theory.1

Understand that Gould was an atheist, Marxist, and giant among naturalists. He worked at the American Museum of Natural History. A Harvard professor and one of the most influential authors of popular science of his generation, Gould was also one the more honest evolutionist of his day and was willing to admit that evolutionary ideas often had negative consequences.

That racism increased by “orders of magnitude” is no overstatement. In the same year that Darwin’s Descent of Man was released, Thomas Huxley (commonly called Darwin’s bulldog), who described people with light skin as “bigger-brained and smaller-jawed,”2 had the following to say about people with dark skin:

No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the white man. . . .

While it’s almost never mentioned in today’s popular articles, movies, or school curricula, the supposed racial superiority of Caucasians was boldly described in Darwin’s treatise, one that Huxley and many others fully embraced.

Darwin declared,

[A]t some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races.

At the same time the anthropomorphous apes . . . will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider . . . even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian [aborigine] and the gorilla.3

Darwin’s intermingling references to ape, anthropomorphous apes (i.e., the apes that appear more human-like), baboon, gorilla, “negros,” Australian aborigines, and Caucasians suggest hierarchy, a conclusion that Huxley and many of his contemporaries also came to.

Side-show ads featuring “ape-men” with other animalistic descriptions (of humans!) served as subtle evolutionary sermons, grooming the general public towards a more evolutionary worldview.

The History of Scientific Racism

However, after Darwin’s work was published, the subtlety largely disappeared. Indeed, American literary critic Leslie Aaron Fiedler concluded,

Such racist mythology did not play a determining role in the perception of non-Europeans by Europeans until the triumph of the theory of organic evolution in Darwin’s Ascent [sic] of the Species (1859) and its extension by analogy into early developmental anthropology.4

Although lacking any true observational confirmation for it, the story of supposed human evolution was quickly promoted and codified as “proven science” among mainstream scientific circles in the West, as an examination of popular literature published consecutively beyond this point in time confirms. A small sampling follows:

As early as 1907, Scientific American described pygmies this way:

The personal appearance, characteristics, and traits of the Congo pygmies . . . [conclude they are] small, apelike, elfish creatures.5

Published just seven years later in 1914, the popular US textbook Civic Biology: Presented in Problems presented an overtly racist depiction of mankind in a supposed evolutionary hierarchy. It identified five “races of man”: Ethiopian, Malay, American Indian, and Mongolian, and “finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”6

And in 1924, the New York Tribune featured Australian aborigines as missing links in a top story where headlines declared, “Kindred of Stone Age Men Discovered on Antarctic Island: Missing Links with Mankind in Early Dawn of History.”7

Such examples are too numerous to mention and can be traced throughout the rest of the 20th century. Racist ideas such as these proliferated Nazi propaganda, undergirded Jim Crowe laws throughout the US, and contributed to the forced segregation initiatives in Canada through the Residential School program. And while some today would say such thinking has largely passed from modern society, examples of scientific racism still commonly persist.

Racism Played Out

The ape-to-man evolutionary diagram still adorns textbooks, T-shirts, and various pop-cultural venues. Evolutionarily depictions of a dark-skinned hairy ape evolving into a Caucasian still reinforce racial superiority: over millions of years, skin lightened, illustrating that the less melanin you have in your skin, the more advanced you are.

It is the exact same racist “monkey-man” message portrayed by the crude carnival barkers of yesteryear.

It is the exact same racist “monkey-man” message portrayed by the crude carnival barkers of yesteryear.

Tossing bananas at black people, as seen in the popular movie Remember the Titans, is rightly recognized as disgustingly racist but rarely linked to evolutionary science and prior “ape-man” slurs. Scientific racism is still promoted throughout all major educational institutions via the teaching of evolution, even in its modified forms, though much more under the radar today for the most part.

However, much to my home country of Canada’s shame, as recently as 1997, Professor Philip Rushton from Western University produced a work titled “Race Evolution and Behavior” that openly rehashed such views. In Barry Mehler’s (professor at Ferris State University) review of Rushton’s work, he reports,

Blacks, according to Rushton, have . . . smaller brains, making them less intelligent than whites and Asians. Using 60 different measures, Rushton ranks the races along an evolutionary scale with blacks at the bottom and Asians at the top.8

The fact is that these ideas have been embedded into the consciousness of Western society over not just several decades but hundreds of years now. And indeed, ideas have consequences. These evolution-based ideas resulted in some of the most horrific consequences ever recorded, as we’ll next week in Part 4: “The Holocaust Before the Holocaust.”


  1. Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (Belknap-Harvard Press, 1977), 127–128.
  2. Thomas H. Huxley, Lay Sermons, Addresses and Reviews. Quoted in Morris, The Long War Against God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), 60.
  3. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (Chicago: Great Books of the Western World, 1952), 336.
  4. L. Fiedler, Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 240–241.
  5. Arthur H. J. Meane, “Anthropological Curiosities: The Pygmies of the World,” Scientific American Supplement No. 1650, August 17, 1907.
  6. A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems, Published 1914.
  7. New York Tribune, February 10, 1921.
  8. Barry Mehler, “In Genes We Trust: When Science Bows to Racism,” Reform Judaism (Winter 1994): 10–14, 77–79. (Commenting on paper by Phillipe Rushton, January 19, 1989).

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