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.

If Kinsey’s Textbook Could Talk …

Alfred C. Kinsey’s 1926 An Introduction to Biology was the first American high school biology textbook organized not against authoritarian concepts of progress, control and exploitation, but instead reflective themes of unity, interdependence and conservation. Anticipating concerns that would not enter the greater public consciousness for decades, Kinsey stressed the “ecologic relations of organisms,” and called it “a mistake to test the importance of knowledge by its known, dollars-and-cents application” (v-vi). Where other textbook authors focused on the history of vertebrates culminating with human dominance, Kinsey focused on the behavior of insects culminating with balance in nature.

Still, the author made sure he didn’t come off as some kind of odd-duck bug lover. In his textbook, Kinsey promoted biology, at least as practiced by a taxonomist like himself, as a rugged sport, full of adventure and manly camaraderie, an antidote to the sissifying effects of the lab and the city.

One might suggest Kinsey was compensating for something. And more than a few have. [1]

Read more

Eugenics in 20th Century High School Biology Textbooks

February 10, 2010

The chart below tracks the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in the American high school biology curriculum. It is based on review of 80 textbooks published between 1907 and 1969. Though there are exceptions, as a rule, textbooks first published in the years prior to 1938 were generally more eugenic than average in their later editions, and textbooks published from 1938 on were generally less eugenic than average in their later editions. Further, with the exception of Moon (first published in 1921), only the less eugenic Smith and Kroeber and Wolff texts survived into the 1960s.

A couple of additional observations:

Scopes: As the chart indicates, the Scopes-era anti-evolution movement in the United States correlated with the peak of eugenic fervor in American biology textbooks. However, the movement was indiscriminate. Any textbook that contained an explicit mention of human evolution, whether that particular text promoted eugenics or not, was subject to censorship – from the most harshly eugenic, like William Atwood’s 1922 Civic and Economic Biology, to the sweet, like Gilbert Trafton’s wonderful 1923 Biology of Home and Community. The latter, though it featured no eugenic language, generated controversy in North Carolina. Despite after the fact claims from creationists, eugenics does not seem to have concerned early fundamentalists.

The Rise of Nazism and World War II: Though Raymond Pearl criticized eugenics as far back as 1927, and the Nazi application of harsh negative eugenic measures pushed liberal scientists like Julian Huxley and Hermann Muller to frame a softer reform eugenics in the mid-1930s, the data demonstrate no sharp drop in the presentation of the topic through the 30s, 40s and 50s, only a gradual decline. This supports Wendy Kline’s claim from Building a Better Race (2001) that the eugenics movement was not “weak and discredited after 1930,” as many scholars contend, but had worked its way deeply into the popular consciousness.

Evolution vs. Eugenics: Though the topics of evolution and eugenics were tightly wed in the economic and civic biologies published from 1914 through the latter 1920s, textbooks with the strongest and most up to date presentation of evolution (Smith, Kroeber and Wolff) were significantly less eugenic than popular textbooks with poorer evolutionary content (Smallwood, Curtis and particularly Moon).

Moon: As with the data tracking the relative priority of the topic of evolution (see chart), the popular Moon text skews the results (see related article). Combined, the data suggest that though conservative regions of the country may have taken issue with the teaching of the topic of evolution, the teaching of eugenics, which discouraged mating across race and class lines, was less controversial.

See – Database: Eugenics in High School Biology Textbooks

Read more

Review: ‘Galileo Goes to Jail’ by Ronald L. Numbers (ed.)

January 6, 2010

Ronald L. Numbers has long been at war with the war metaphor. For more than two decades, Numbers has argued that conceptualizing the relationship between religion and science as a battle between powerful opposing forces is “neither useful nor tenable.” In Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion (2009, Harvard University Press), Numbers continues his mission. For this book, Numbers presents 25 essays by noted historians debunking common “religion vs. science” myths. Audio interview

Read more

Haeckel’s Embryos in High School and College

It is hard to deny that Haeckel’s embryos are an “icon of evolution,” true even if “icon” now evokes Jonathan Wells’ “travesty” of a book (see Matzke). The embryos were reproduced in a majority of high school and college biology textbooks from the mid-1930s through at least the 1960s (See table). Generations of students took away the incorrect but easy to accept and generally cool idea that we pass through a fish-like stage, complete with gill slits, on our way to becoming human.

Creationists, forever seeking advantage, took a 1997 journal article challenging the residual utility of Ernst Haeckel’s iconic embryos (Richardson et al.) and fashioned it into a pointy stick to poke their favorite straw man, the “scientific elite” (Pennisi, 1997; Behe, 1998; Wells, 1999; Freeman, 2001a,b; Ojala, 2004). With fresh charges of “fraud” and “fake,” these anti-evolutionists pricked a few scientists and historians. But the “prickees” fought back, and with context and nuance on their side, made quick work of the critics (Hopwood, 2006; Blackwell, 2007; Richards, 2009). Charges of fraud against Haeckel are as old as the drawings themselves, the defenders noted, just another out of date argument in the creationists’ pitiful quiver of half-truths and rhetorical manipulations.

Thrust. Parry.

But we must be careful: creationist attacks tend to generate simplified and emotional responses that can constrain critical thinking.

Haeckel’s “icon” was and remains a potent and problematic image (see Ken Miller and Joe Levine’s note). Though it is true that Haeckel’s “schematic” illustrations gave way to better representations starting in the late 1940s, biology textbooks continued to present embryos, always vertebrates, side-by-side or in a comparative grid. It’s an arrangement that was designed to communicate Haeckel’s belief that embryonic development and evolutionary history were linked and that evolution was progressive. It is easy to argue that it still does, despite the disclaimers authors usually offer.

What is most curious is that the rise in popularity of Haeckel’s embryos happened just as biologists were distancing themselves from the kind of broad morphologically-based conjecture the “icon” was designed to support. Less than 20% of early American biology textbooks (1907-1932) included all or part of Haeckel’s original grid. But by the 1940s and into the 1950s, upwards of 60% of high school textbooks featured copies or close variations of the 1874 original.

How do we explain this?

Read more

The Accidental Advocate

December 17, 2009

The Revolution Will Be Animated by Marine Lormant Sebag.

Historians, bloggers and critics can “reuse” bits of culture under “fair use.” But creative artists must secure the rights to any work they “sample.” Why is that?

This is a question not so easily answered.

The documentary linked above features Nina Paley, writer, animator and director of the movie Sita Sings the Blues. Paley has adopted a novel approach to distribution of her film, in part to challenge current copyright practices. The story generated a bit of “comment controversy” on Cartoon Brew. Paley offered this interesting link. My two cents as posted on CB below.

Read more

20th Century High School Biology Textbooks Reviewed and Ranked

A database of 82 American high school biology textbooks, from Elements of Biology (1907) through Modern Biology (1969).

Each entry includes a brief observational note and a 0-5 ranking based on a qualitative assessment of the presentation of the topic of evolution. The table also includes title, copyright date, author(s) and category: P for phylogenetic, E for economic, U for unity of life, and N for normative. I will be writing more on this categorization scheme shortly.

Read more

The Weight of the Moon or How a Single Textbook Skewed Our View of History

November 29, 2009

In the 1950s and 1960s, Moon, Mann and Otto’s Modern Biology was the most popular high school biology textbook in the country, commanding upwards of 50% of the market. It was also among the most retrograde and out of date.

Scholars have criticized the book for its weak presentation of the topic of evolution. The 1956 edition is the focus of particular scorn. In that edition all references to human evolution were deleted. The publisher of the second most popular textbook, Exploring Biology, followed suit a few years later.

Had the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) not stepped in to stem the slide by developing new textbooks in early 1960s, would evolution have disappeared from American classrooms altogether?

Read more

The Topic of Evolution in Secondary Schools Revisited

A new analysis of high school biology textbooks shows that emphasis on the topic of evolution decreased sharply in the decade ahead of the Scopes trial (1925). However, contrary to the conventional scholarly view [1], relative priority of the topic retuned to pre-Scopes levels by 1935 and did not decrease significantly in the decades that followed.

The graph below is based on direct review and analysis (see table) of 80 American high school biology textbooks published between 1907 and 1969.


This graph was generated in Excel by plotting the data gathered through direct examination of 80 high school textbooks published between 1907 and 1969. It shows a clear decline in the priority of the topic of evolution in the years ahead of Scopes trial in 1925, restoration of the topic to earlier levels by 1935, a secondary decline from about 1945 to 1955 and then a rise into the 1960s.

The data strongly suggest that Scopes, or more accurately the general anti-evolution movement of the early 1920s, had an impact on the treatment of the topic of evolution in biology textbooks. However, the impact was temporary. By the later 1930s, the topic had returned to its pre-Scopes status, and remained at least at that status level through the 1960s.

The dip at toward the middle of the 1950s is almost entirely attributable to the popularity of one textbook, Moon’s Modern Biology (see article). It is interesting to compare this chart with a similar chart based on the same data set of the relative treatment of the topic of eugenics.

Read more

Happy Birthday, Origin

November 24, 2009

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, I thought I’d take the opportunity to note that though the image of Darwin we share today, that tired but steadfast symbol of rationality and science, dates back only to the 1950s, not 1850s (see Janet Browne’s article in Isis). Further, during most of the 30 years prior to Origin’s centenary, Darwin and his theory of natural selection, to borrow Peter Bowler’s term, were in eclipse.

This neat bit of near-ephemera was among the first attempts to restore some of Darwin’s lost luster. Published in 1956, The Darwin Reader was a “best of” (and somewhat sanitized) collection of the writings of Charles Darwin edited by two professors at the University of Michigan, Philip S. Humphrey and Marston Bates. The editors noted that hardly anybody in the mid-1950s was reading Darwin, professionals included. They thought a good digest would help.

I know nothing of Humphrey. But I know Bates was an amazing man (see related articles). A contemporary of Rachel Carson, Bates helped popularize ecology, was a fantastic natural historian and popular author and was the person most responsible for that radically influential 1960s biology textbook, the BSCS “green version.”

If you don’t know Marston Bates, go online right now, find a used copy of The Forest and the Sea, and buy it!

Read more