June 12, 2009

Bentley Glass was proving a hard character to introduce cold in a blog.

Then, just the other day, I found a key. A search on Abebooks turned up a 1949 Houghton Mifflin text I’d never heard of, The World of Life by Wolfgang F. Pauli. Curious, I ordered it.

What do you know? It turned out to be a fascinating book edited by none other than Bentley Glass!

Pauli’s text is a remarkably bold attempt to reignite an interest and embrace of eugenics after World War II. The World of Life is nothing short of the missing link that connects an older nationalistic eugenics, common in textbooks from the 1920s and 30s, to a more generalized and globalized “eugenics that dare not say its name” that would emerge in biology textbooks in the early 1960s, including textbooks produced by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), a group chaired by Bentley Glass.

(For a good history of the BSCS, see John L. Rudolph’s Scientists in the Classroom.)

Here is Glass’ “Editor’s Introduction” from Wolfgang F. Pauli’s The World of Life in full, followed by a few brief comments related to the passages highlighted in bold.


When all is said, evolution remains the great unifying principle of modern biology. Nevertheless, it has not been too fashionable in the past three decades to make it the central theme in elementary college courses in that subject [1], at least in the United States. Yet since 1927 [2] the advances made in the scientific understanding of evolutionary processes have made it clearer than ever that the fundamental aspects of the biological sciences meet in the evolutionary process and are fully intelligible only in its light. Here meet, on the one hand, the genes and the pattern of development they control, the structures and functions of organisms, and the very biochemistry and biophysics of life; and on the other, the broader relations of individuals to one another and to their mundane environment, their adaptations, and the competitive struggle between them. [3]

Teachers of biology should therefore welcome such a textbook as this one, by so enthusiastic and gifted a writer as Professor Pauli. Here is a well-rounded story of life in its evolutionary setting, with none of the important aspects of biology slighted and with all of them illuminated by their relation to the theme of life through the ages. Nor is emphasis laid unduly on the past. The present is stressed, and a consideration of the future forms a fitting climax.

In the face of a superfluity of good college textbooks of biology, there would seem to be little need for another, unless it be truly original in character. Of Dr. Pauli’s The World of Life it can be said without hesitation –- from its unusual and exhilarating treatment of the physical setting of life to the thought-provoking final chapter on the human problems of population growth and eugenics [4] — it bears the stamp of originality.

The Johns Hopkins University

[1] Right from the first sentence Glass describes the straw man he later, as chairman of the BSCS, would deploy to defend and promote that organization’s work – the idea that evolution once served as the central theme of biology textbooks, but that its use as a central theme had fallen out of favor over time for reasons left unstated.

It’s hard to understand what Glass is talking about here. As Phillip J. Pauly, Eric Engles and other scholars have noted, a simple-to-complex progressive “evolutionary” framework, identical to the framework used by Pauli, structured virtually every biology textbook published from about 1914 on. The topic, though often euphemistically labeled (as “change,” “racial development,” “development”), was rarely absent (See related article).

Pauli’s textbook was different only in degree.

Careful reading of textbooks published from the later 30s through the war suggest that what drove authors to dial back a bit on the centrality of what was once called “the doctrine of evolution” was less a lack of commitment to evolution or a reaction to external forces (like opposition from religious fundamentalists) and more a growing metaphorical conflict between the narrative of progress, with its implied progressive hierarchy of human development, and changing concepts of race and class. Glass would struggle to address this conflict in his work and public life for the next 30 years. (More on that in a later post.)

[2] Scholars generally date the scientific understanding of the evolutionary process, the “modern synthesis,” to 1937, the year Theodore Dobzhansky published Genetics and the Origin of Species. The date identified by Glass as the beginning of our modern understanding of the evolutionary process, 1927, is interesting as it is the year Hermann J. Muller, Glass’ one time academic advisor, discovered the mutagenic effects of X-rays on fruit flies.

Muller, later very influential as a member of the steering committee of the BSCS, never really got on board the modern synthesis bus. In 1949, even as high school textbook authors (see Smith) were able to absorb and explain the less progress-oriented narrative of the modern synthesis, Muller began a new post-war progress-dependent campaign to revive an activist and prescriptive biology. Muller never let go of the old school notion that medical science was saving the weak, and because it was, reproduction would inevitably require eugenic management to prevent the “genetic load” of mutations in the human species from building generation to generation.

[3] This semi-colon linked couplet is critical. It communicates, in somewhat obtuse language, a belief that the concept of evolution links organic and cultural development. By making this assertion, biologists could claim special insight and implied managerial authority over cultural relationships.

[4] The final sentence of the second paragraph suggests that Glass found Pauli’s book exciting because of its narrative sweep, from cosmic stew to “man as master of his own evolutionary destiny,” a sweep echoed in grand progressive evolutionary narratives from Robert Chambers’ Vestiges to Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

[5] Finally, Glass closes with an explicit endorsement of Pauli’s final 25-page chapter titled “Genetics and Eugenics” which dramatically outlined the critical need to eugenically manage reproduction; warning of the threat to democracy represented by a lowering of average human intelligence supposedly caused by the birth of too many from the lower classes and too few from the upper. This chapter is most interesting historically because, perhaps for the first time in any American biology textbook, the author globalizes the threat. Pointing to the “dreadful example” of India, Pauli warns, “the population has increased by 83 millions in the last 20 years … [while] populations in the most highly cultured nations are static or declining” (592, emphasis added). Pauli’s book closes thusly: “Time only will tell whether the mass of humankind will turn to assist in the task [of eugenic progress], or whether, in blind and uncomprehending rage, they will tear down what appears to them only a barrier to their comfortable journey downward to extinction” (601).

Pauli’s hard line eugenic ideas, already out of date when they were published, grew even less socially acceptable as the 1950s wore on. But Bentley Glass would soldier on, devoting his enormous energy and organizational talent over the next several decades to the task of bringing eugenics in for a soft landing.

Also see “Eugenics in American College Biology Textbooks.”


Engles, Eric W. 1991. “Biology Education in the Public High Schools of the
United States from the Progressive Era to the Second World War:
A Discursive History.” Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Cruz.

Pauli, Wolfgang F. 1949. The World of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Pauly, Philip J. 1991. “The Development of High School Biology: New York City, 1900–1925.” Isis 82.

Rudolph, John L. 2002. Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education. New York: Palgrave.

2009.6.14: Extensively revised for clarity. References added. Point #3 added.


  1. Thanks for this essay. Because the illustration style appealed to me, I picked up a copy of Pauli’s textbook at Goodwill recently, knowing nothing of its history. My copy was heavily underlined by a student at “Osage High School”. That is, it was closely read through Chapter 24. Chapter 25, the last chapter and the one on eugenics, has no underlining or annotations at all. Perhaps the teacher didn’t assign it.

  2. Very interesting. And coincidental. I’ve been working on a post about that last chapter off and on for a month now. I think you’re probably right, and that the last chapter wasn’t covered in the classroom that used your copy of the book. So it is therefore likely that most if not all of the students were spared Pauli’s really creepy and gendered “shrinking man” predictions for the future. Like these from page 598.

    Physically, future man may show less sexual differentiation in build, to the extent that Caesarian operations remove the selective value of the broad female pelvis, and that improved bottle formulations for infant feeding largely remove the selective value of the female breast. Thus we glimpse the human female of the future as flat chested and narrow-hipped, a far cry from the ‘pin-up.’ Future man may well be toothless … digestive tracts may dwindle … toes may fuse and the hair on the head may follow body hair into limbo … future babies … will be subject to a series of surgical operations and patchwork, and to numerous injections, before they become capable of surviving at all.

    Pauli followed with:

    The really objective student will not be repelled by this picture of the physical characteristics of future man, but he will still regard as decidedly ominous the signal of declining intelligence.

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