Since the mid-nineteenth century, school boards, scientists and social reformers have used textbooks to promote a wide range of idiosyncratic ideas, all promising to maintain the social order and control that most unruly of bodies, the pubescent teenager.

Ellsworth Huntington’s Fantastic Stories of Racial Superiority and Relative Humidity

April 17, 2011

Ellsworth Huntington was one of the early twentieth century’s most prolific science writers. The author of 28 books, contributor to 29 others and author of more than 240 articles, [1] Huntington was a climatic determinist who held that geography was the “basis for history.” [2] Civilization according to Huntington owed its rise to the weather. He suggested his superior “Teutonic stock” was a natural consequence of the same atmospheric conditions that cause thunderstorms.

But Huntington was worried. He felt he had solid statistical evidence that as his race took on what he thought was its evolutionary obligation to dominate it faced two serious threats: the physically and morally debilitating effects of the tropics and tropical women on WASPs who worked abroad, and the productivity-sapping effects of luxuries like central heating on those who worked at home.

Initially Huntington proposed simple mechanical solutions to these “problems,” like a housing unit that would artificially cycle its internal barometric pressure, and by this action keep his fellow New Englanders charged up wherever they lived. But in the 1920s, with his academic career stalled, Huntington’s ideas began to darken. In 1934 he accepted the presidency of the board of directors of the increasingly nativist American Eugenics Society. By 1935 he was applying his writing talents to the development of that group’s “catechism,” a chilling book titled Tomorrow’s Children.

Huntington was an odd duck, criticized even in his day for possessing an “overheated imagination” that saw patterns in data where none existed and forced facts to fit predetermined conclusions. So why bother studying a man who labored as a lowly Research Associate at an insulting salary at Yale for nearly the entirety of his professional life?

Huntington was a fantasist with little peer support, but his popularity demonstrates how adept he was at framing a folk-science that, to borrow a phrase from Jerome Ravetz, provided America’s ruling class “comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience.” [3] In Huntington we see a metaphor for a nation. Once a jaunty optimist who saw continued cultural domination as a minor engineering challenge, Ellsworth Huntington joined a generation that grew increasingly inclined to promote coercive social policies as it rationalized the rejection of its stumbling personal advances as accumulating proof that the species was in decline.

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

January 29, 2011

Cartoon reprinted in "The Population Bomb: Is Voluntary Human Sterilization the Answer" (c. 1961), a pamphlet published by Dixie Cup magnate Hugh Moore.

Cartoon reprinted in “The Population Bomb: Is Voluntary Human Sterilization the Answer” (c. 1961), a pamphlet published by Dixie Cup magnate Hugh Moore.

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, and contact had led to fear. Like the physicist’s “gadget,” biology’s “bomb” was conjured to protect the national body from penetration.

The “population bomb” was made as real and scary to school children in the 1960s as the H-bombs that drove them under their desks.

True, from the publication of George W. Hunter’s A Civic Biology in 1914 on, students had been taught that America had a “population problem.” But for the first four decades of the twentieth century, that problem wasn’t runaway growth, it was “differential reproduction.” Pre-war biology textbooks in fact warned that total population would level off by 1970 (see graph below), and when it did, the “quality” of the population would begin to decline if present fertility trends continued. The threat wasn’t one of too many babies. The threat was that too many babies were being born to the ‘wrong’ people – the poor, the criminal, the so-called ‘feeble-minded,’ the swarthy and the black.

As E. E. Stanford fussed in his 1940 biology textbook, Man & the Living World, “Families of professional and business classes of supposedly intellectual rating are not replacing themselves, while those of farmers, laborers, and above all, ‘reliefers’ still maintain increase” (722).

But by the war’s end, Stanford’s worry was decidedly out of fashion, a quaint relic, a Zeppelin in a jet age.

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What’s Buried in the Bentley Glass Archive?

January 6, 2011

Historian Audra Wolff has completed the Herculean task of creating a folder-level list of the contents of the Bentley Glass archive at the APS – all 90 linear feet of it! See her note on Facebook. Interested scholars are invited to email Wolfe for a copy.

Glass apparently saved every scrap of paper he ever stuffed into a briefcase, folder or trouser pocket. Wolfe told me she almost cried at the prospect of spending “most of an afternoon going through folders that contained train receipts and travel reimbursement requests.”

But what a treasure! The archive is far from “ordered,” according to Wolfe. But her list should prove an invaluable aid for historians of science and public policy, as Glass had his hands in just about everything during the Cold War.

Textbook History posts related to Bentley Glass are available here, and include this brief bio.

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What Can a Google Ngram Tell Us About Eugenics, Biology and Science Textbooks In General?

December 31, 2010

I’ve been playing around with the new Google Ngram Viewer, an amazing application that allows searches within the text of the 5 million or so books Google has scanned to date. The Ngram Viewer allows users to enter multiple words or phrases and a date range, and then returns a graph of the use of those words or phrases relative to all the words published during the years specified. Though the tool has been reviewed as something of a time-suck or toy, applied using the very specific language of the social application of biology, I think it shows itself to be a pretty darn cool thing.

The chart above compares the frequency of the use of the word ‘eugenics’ in all books scanned by Google between the years 1905 and 1970 (blue line) with the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in American classrooms based on this author’s study of 80 high school biology textbooks (orange line).

A few fast searches turned up some interesting correlations and relationships: a cross in the popularity of the words ‘eugenics’ and ‘genetics’ in 1934; the rise and decline of eugenic-era terms ‘euthenics,’ ‘dysgenic’ and ‘feeble minded’ and the subsequent post-World War II popularity of the phrase ‘population explosion’; and the relative instances of the phrases ‘Kallikak family,’ ‘Juke family’ and ‘Nam family’, which revealed in a click data scholars might have spent years painstakingly counting.

The ‘eugenics’ curve was particularly interesting to me, as I had published a graph just last February based on the results of a survey that tracked the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in 80 American high school biology textbooks. Frankly, I was somewhat amazed by how closely my graph and Google’s paralleled one another.

Let me offer a couple of caveats before drawing any conclusions.

First, the vertical axis for both graphs is arbitrary. I ‘normalized’ the relative heights. Second, my graph is based on a subjective analysis of importance of eugenics in biology textbooks, while the Google graph is based on a hard word count of all texts published. Still, I think these parallel lines offer some interesting, if only suggestive, insights into a couple of questions asked about biology textbooks.

Assuming its okay to ‘normalize’ the vertical axis, what first jumps out is the obvious shift of 5 to 7 years between the height of popularity of the topic of eugenics in all texts and its popularity in biology textbooks. The second thing that pops is the apparent reluctance by authors to let go of eugenics, even as general interest in the topic began to wane dramatically starting in the late 1930s.

I hesitate to make too much of this, as a similar Ngram built using the word ‘evolution’ did not match my survey of the relative value of that topic in high school biology textbooks quite as neatly.

Still, something, don’t you think?

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Karl Sax and ‘The Population Explosion’

November 30, 2010

Another quick post ahead of longer article on pre- and post-WWII population rhetoric. This from Karl Sax, The Population Explosion, the November 1956 entry in the Foreign Policy Association’s well-regarded “Headline Series” (click pic to view).

Sax is a very interesting transitional figure. Though he titled his 1945 article in The Science of Man in the World Crisis, “Population Problems,” his concern even by that late date was not on overpopulation, but on “differential fertility.” In other words, even at war’s end, Sax remained a eugenicist concerned with browning, not breeding, and the geography of his worries were more national than planetary.

However, Sax’s explicitly race-based “populationism” was fast falling out of fashion, as evidenced by articles like “The Concept of Race” by Wilton Marion Krogman, which shared space in The Science of Man in the World Crisis.

Change came in 1948 when two books – Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s Road to Survival – introduced (or at least attempted to introduce) a more race-neutral ecologically based populationism. (See Pierre Desrochers and Christine Hoffbauer’s excellent article on this topic.)

But Sax would not be left behind. By 1951 he had adopted Osborn and Vogt’s “population bomb” metaphor, later popularized by Hugh Moore and Paul Ehrlich. In an article for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Sax wrote, “population pressure [is] a far greater threat to world civilization than the atomic bomb.” In 1955 Sax authored Standing Room Only: The Challenge of Overpopulation.” This pamphlet was distilled from that book.

I’ll leave it to you to judge just how “race-neutral” Sax and the new populationism had become. (See for example Sax’s comparison of Puerto Rico and Japan on pages 42 and 43.)

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The Population Bomb v1.0

November 23, 2010

I’m planning to write a longer piece over the next few days on the transition in biology textbook from a narrative that climaxed with the creeping danger of eugenic decay to one that warned of the imminent cataclysm of a “population bomb.”

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller, The Population Bomb, first published in 1968. Those of us of a certain age remember it sitting on the well-read suburban rebel’s bookshelf right between The Naked Ape and The Greening of America. (Sorry about all the Wikipedia.) But Ehrlich borrowed his title and thesis (with permission and acknowledgement) from these little books published by something called the Hugh Moore Fund.

Who was Hugh Moore? He was the inventor of the Dixie Cup. By the 1940s he was investing a fair portion of the fortune he made denuding America’s hillsides and sanitizing its bathrooms promoting urgent action on “the population problem.” Though some scholars dismiss Moore as a crank, he was a friend to many powerful people, including William Draper, Jr. and the Bush family. His little 3″ x 6″ pamphlets introduced (or at least popularized) the exponential growth curve, forecasting a world overrun by brown people and communists! By the later 1960s, this scary little graph was shooting up and off the page of the best American high school biology textbooks (the one on the right is from the 1968 BSCS Yellow Version), turning even sex-crazed tenth-graders into rabid ZPGers! (Yeah, more Wikipedia.)

A bit more about more on Moore can be found in Jacqueline Kasun’s The War Against Population (2000). I’m afraid until I get around to writing a proper article, this snip will have to do.

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Purity, Pornography and Eugenics in the 1930s (Parts I & II)

From left to right: a page from a Tijuana bible, an advertisement from Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review (1921) and a portrait of Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

As far as the U.S. Post Office was concerned in 1930, birth control and pornography were one and the same. An 1873 federal anti-obscenity statue known as the Comstock Act prohibited the mailing of both dirty pictures and “rubber goods.” According to scholars, this act, along with associated state regulations – collectively known as the Comstock Laws – were passed in part in an attempt to counteract the loss of community control over personal behavior generated by rapid industrialization and the rise of an unmoored labor class.

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The Lost Lessons of ‘Silent Spring’

July 28, 2010

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is considered by many the genesis event of the modern environmental movement. What is sometimes lost to our collective memory is that Silent Spring, Carson’s “little book of horrors,” as it was derisively labeled by one reviewer, (Williams 296) was a direct challenge to a long-dominant view of science as a progressive force and the idea that this force was manifest in science’s ability to control and exploit nature (Smith 746). As Michael Smith writes, “[Carson] offered a vision of science that expressed a reconsideration of the Baconian model that has more or less guided Western science since the seventeenth century” (Smith 746).

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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 by women’s history as evidenced by his many mistranslations of existentialist terminology and the fact that he cut the many stories of strong women present in the original. According to Simons, Parshley, a Smith College zoologist, got the gig only because Beauvoir’s American publisher, Knopf, mistakenly thought her book was about the act of sex, and Parshley had written a book on human reproduction in the early 1930s.

From The Science of Human Reproduction (1933) by Howard W. Parshley. Eugenics Publishing Company.

Parshley had his defenders, including Richard Gillman, a one-time neighbor, who in a 1988 article in the New York Times noted that Parshley, rather than hostile to Beauvoir, had encouraged Knopf to publish The Second Sex in English after reading it, in the original French, in 1949. In a note to Knopf, Parshley described the book as, “a profound and unique analysis of woman’s nature and position, eminently reasonable and witty.”

In an ironic turn, Parshley’s reputation has recently been restored, at least partially, through the publication of a new English translation of The Second Sex that was prodded into existence by Simons and other critics. The latest edition is complete and supposedly more sensitive to the original’s existentialist armature. However, at least one reviewer has admitted that the language of the new edition is literal to the detriment of felicity and coherence.

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Race, Art and Evolution

June 22, 2010

These reconstructions of Java Man (Pithecanthropus), Neanderthal Man and Cro-Magnon Man were created around 1915 by Columbia University physical anthropologist J. H. McGregor for the American Museum of Natural History. They were designed not just to impress visitors with the wonders of science, but also to promote the eugenic theories of the museum’s director, Henry Fairfield Osborn. The images were reproduced in many biology textbooks to support a narrative of racial progress. Pen-wielding students often “repurposed” them to illustrate their own stories.


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 (Moser 1998). 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 (see related article). Osborn believed humans had reached an evolutionary peak in the caves of Lascaux, but that racial mixing was threatening to drag the species back (Clark 2008, Rainger 1991).

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.

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