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.

Biology’s Bomb: Graphing “Explosive” Population Growth in Cold War Textbooks

January 29, 2011 Prior to World War II, America’s protectors thought the country’s innocence could be guarded at its gates. Citizen biologists saw the nation’s border as kind of cartographic diaphragm, not entirely reliable in individual instances, but adequate to the task of containing the pool of potential breeders. But conflict had led to contact,…


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…

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.

About Textbook History

Textbook History is the personal journal of Ronald Ladouceur, an independent scholar interested in the intersection of history, science and visual rhetoric. Articles here are inspired by history, anatomy, and biology textbooks published in the United States between 1845 and 1970, including the 135+ textbooks in the author’s personal collection. Textbooks, it turns out, are…