Making Sense of Bentley Glass

July 4, 2009 In its obituary, the Washington Post described Bentley Glass (1906-2005) as a “peripatetic figure in the 1950s and 1960s,” a man who seemed to be everywhere and advising everyone. In other obituaries Glass was described as “provocative” and “outspoken.” Editors of course made note of Glass’ more controversial comments, such as his…

To Conserve Man

Bison from Civic BiologyTo our Rachel Carson-tuned ears, the word conservation means allowing nature to hold sway, to designate areas as wetlands, protected habitats and forever wild, to be humble and accept that nature is usually smarter than we are. But to biology textbook authors in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, influenced by the eugenic ideas of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and others, conservation meant something else entirely. It meant first, preserving select symbols of American virility, like the redwood tree, the bison, and most importantly, their own “great race,” and second, managing the rest of nature – forests, water resources, wildlife, and soil – so that it could be exploited maximally without collapse.

Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Tragic Legacy of Piltdown Man

Piltdown man’s dramatic entry into textbooks starting in the mid-1930s was a reactionary effort by Henry Fairfield Osborn to infiltrate the debate on human origins and freeze in place his favored ideas of human evolution and the necessity of eugenic management.

The consequences were tragic.

By flooding the market, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that resisted countervailing evidence for decades, survived Piltdown’s fall in 1953, and tainted the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s.

Where’d Hugo Go?

Darwin and De VriesDutch botanist Hugo de Vries gained global fame in the first decades of the twentieth century for being the guy who finally figured out how evolution worked. Today he is all but forgotten. Should he stay that way? Or are their good reasons to remember “dead end” scientific theories and the people who loved them?


How Are We Going to Control These Kids? Biology Textbooks in the 1940s By 1940, biology’s core eugenics-based narrative had been dramatically weakened. Yet the demand for a curriculum that could control adolescent sexuality, had, if anything, only increased since the 1920s. Worries about what their sons and daughters were getting up to in the…

Howard M. Parshley’s Translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex:’ Contrition, Sabotage or Suicide?

June 24, 2010 For most of the last 25 years, Howard M. Parshley, translator of the first English edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1953), has been cast as a saboteur of second-wave feminism. In a 1983 article, Margaret A. Simons characterized Parshley as a barely bilingual hack, ungrounded in philosophy, and bored…

Race, Art and Evolution

The sculpted busts of “early man” by J. H. McGregor, and the paintings of Neanderthal flint workers and Cro-Magnon artists by Charles R. Knight, alchemized imaginary beasts of centuries past into icons of progress that carried the imprimatur of science. But the narrative they supported was conflicted from the start. Created between the years 1915 and 1920 under the guidance of Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, the images were designed to both celebrate scientific progress and alert visitors to the museum’s “Hall of the Age of Man” of an impending eugenic crisis. Osborn believed humans had reached an evolutionary peak in the caves of Lascaux, but that racial mixing was threatening to drag the species back.

It was a downer of story, and the visiting public, or at least the white public, happily skipped past it. Instead they saw in Knight and McGregor’s images visual confirmation of their own racial, cultural and scientific superiority.