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.

After Scopes, Black Was The New Grey

November 18, 2009

The Scopes trial represented both a crisis and an opportunity for biology textbook authors and publishers.

George W. Hunter, author of the textbook at the center of the trial, was caught flat-footed. He and his publisher, the American Book Company, were midway through a scheduled revision to Civic Biology when the Scopes story went national. They soon discovered that their competitors had gotten the jump on them by publishing “acceptable” alternatives to texts like his and others not yet hip to the latest fundamentalist fashion.

But what constituted “acceptable?” How many compromises were required to twist biology into something a conservative Tennessee or Texas textbook committee would approve?

As luck would have it, a single textbook provides the answers.

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Biology Textbooks Before Scopes (Updated)

November 8, 2009

[List updated to include Applied Biology (1911) and Practical Biology (1916)]

Google has now digitized all of the most important and popular American high school biology textbooks published before 1923. Though this cut off date, dictated by current copyright law, prevents easy review of a few significant “pre-Scopes” textbooks – specifically Henry R. Linville’s Biology of Man and Other Organisms (1923), George W. Hunter’s New Essentials of Biology (1923), Gilbert H. Trafton’s Biology of Home and Community (1923), Peabody and Hunt’s Biology and Human Welfare (1924) and Benjamin C. Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life (1925) – the books available offer a fascinating window on Progressive Era values and conceits.

[On edit: As of January 1, 2019, copyrighted material from 1923 is now in the public domain. Links above for Liville, Hunter (1923) and Trafton are now live.]

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Kroeber and Wolff’s Excellent Adventures

November 5, 2009

Published in 1938, Adventures With Livings Things was one of the most comprehensive, most far-sighted American high school biology textbooks of the century. It was also one of the most challenging. And in terms of commercial success and influence, perhaps one of the most disappointing.

Authored by accomplished New York City educators Elsbeth Kroeber and Walter H. Wolff – she the sister of famed anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and he an intellectually ambitious department chair at DeWitt Clinton High School – Adventures (1938) delivered a solid corrective to the grossly anthropomorphic and depressingly deterministic textbooks of the 20s and 30s. It was one of the first of a wave of biology textbooks authored during the “Nazi years” that actively countered class and race prejudice and worked to undercut popular and institutional enthusiasm for eugenics. Other notable texts of this ilk include Smith’s Exploring Biology (also 1938) and Bayles and Burnett’s Biology for Better Living (1941).


Kroeber and Wolff’s brave book signaled its attack on the standard narrative and common conceits right from its opening pages.

Instead of the usual run of plants and animals from simplest to complex leading to “man,” the crown of creation and a creature apart, Adventures started with “man,” situated the species firmly within an interdependent biological space, and then moved with haste “down” through 150 pages of apes, reptiles, fishes, insects, invertebrates, to the “invisible” organisms and two brief chapters on plants on its way to the main body of the book, a nearly 500 page unit-based “unity of life” biology.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Kroeber and Wolff closed with another 150 pages on the “great generalizations of biology:” the unity of all living things, balance in nature, geological and organic change, the interplay of heredity and environment, evolution by the accumulation of very small changes, and finally, the potential of science to drive progress.

To understand how radical this was one need only compare Adventures With Living Things to the most popular textbooks at that time: Moon’s Biology, Smallwood’s New Biology, Baker and Mills’ Dynamic Biology and Curtis, Caldwell and Sherman’s Biology for Today. None of these texts devoted more than a few dozen pages to the “great generalizations.” All twisted and edited themselves to accommodate the concerns of textbook committees and school boards fearful of community objections to the teaching of reproduction and human evolution. Many contained startling race-based proofs of evolutionary “progress.” And all promoted eugenics without qualification. In fact, Moon’s text, which became Modern Biology in 1947, would continue to promote eugenics, calling it a “young science,” well into the 1960s.

However, Adventures With Living Things never gained much commercial traction. Though it was used in classrooms throughout New York City, no doubt because its authors had some influence there, it appears never to have generated much interest beyond the boroughs.


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Yikes! I’m a Hit with IDers

November 5, 2009

Traffic to this site spiked today. A quick look at the web stats showed why … a positive mention on the popular ID blog Uncommon Descent.

I’m flattered. I guess.

Well, since I have the attention of so many, let me state my position clearly. Evolution happened. Happens. It doesn’t mean anything, like geocentricism doesn’t mean anything. But it is interesting. Good science. Worth contemplating. And should be taught to every 10th grader.

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Adventure! Domination! Biology!

October 6, 2009

These images both depict ceremonially scarred women, face on, naked at least to the waist. The one on the left is from a popular college textbook from the 1940s. The one on the right is from a Men’s Adventure magazine, otherwise known as a “sweat” or “armpit” pulp, from the 1950s.

In this article I suggest, despite their quite different contexts, these images served a common purpose. They invited the viewer to enter a protected sphere where fantasies of superiority and domination were reinforced and could be comfortably indulged.

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Reform Eugenics and the Gender Bomb

September 13, 2009

Amram Scheinfeld’s 1939 You and Heredity was a bestseller, a hit not only with the general public, but also with life scientists. It was rightly lauded as an excellent layperson’s primer on the state-of-the-art in human genetics and heredity, and a serious critique of the racist, nativist and even anti-homosexual sentiments common among early eugenics supporters.

High school biology textbook authors immediately attached You and Heredity as a “further reading” to chapters on human inheritance, though they continued to mix it in with older, more hard line eugenic texts like Henry H. Goddard’s The Kallikak Family and Ellsworth Huntington’s Tomorrow’s Children.

Scheinfeld’s “breakthrough” thesis was that human behavior is governed not just by biological genes, but also by “social genes.” Scheinfeld suggested these “social genes” were much more critical to human behavior than early eugenicists thought. And that unlike beneficial biological genes, of which scientists still knew little, beneficial “social genes” were easy to identify and could be selected for simply by improving the environment.

But despite its many strengths, You and Heredity did not stray far from traditional assumptions regarding the general class distribution of “good” and “bad” genes. Though Scheinfeld believed it was impossible to know how any single individual, no matter how “badly born,” would ultimately turn out, he felt it was still critical to figure out some way of encouraging people who had good social genes, people not coincidentally like himself, to breed more and rebalance fertility rates.

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Review: ‘Three Generations, No Imbeciles’ by Paul A. Lombardo

August 30, 2009

Paul A. Lombardo’s history of Buck v. Bell, Three Generations, No Imbeciles (2008. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.), is a terrific telling of case of Carrie Buck, a young woman sterilized by Virginia in 1927 in order to prevent her from having more “socially inadequate” offspring.

In 1924, supporters of a statute known as the Virginia Sterilization Act challenged the very law they helped author in hopes of gaining legal cover for their eugenic efforts. They claimed that reproduction among the “feebleminded” was a proximate threat to the body social. According to the “expert” brought in by counsel to defend the Act, Buck was the daughter of a feebleminded woman, was feebleminded herself, and had demonstrated that she was a danger to the community by bearing an illegitimate feebleminded daughter.

The case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 8-1 affirmation, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously opined, “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.”

Lombardo presents documentary proof that Carrie Buck and her daughter were perfectly normal, perhaps even a bit above average, and that the 1924 proceedings which led to the Supreme Court’s review were a sham, with prosecution and defense attorneys colluding to produce the desired outcome. Adding insult, Buck’s daughter, the birth of whom signaled to many that Carrie was genetically predisposed to promiscuity, was the product of an incestuous rape.

But Lombardo’s story is about much more than a poor court decision.

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H. W. Conn’s ‘Communistic’ Challenge to Eugenics

August 21, 2009

Between 1907 and 1914, 12 states passed eugenic sterilization laws.

As Paul A. Lombardo details so well in Three Generations, No Imbeciles, enactment of these statutes was driven by a realtively small number of lawmakers, self-promoting policy enthusiasts and a new class of bureaucrats, the directors of institutions for the “feebleminded.” These men, and they were all men, worked diligently and with few expressed doubts to overcome legal and cultural objections to coercive “asexualization” by positioning sterilization of the “socially inadequate” as an hygienic necessity no more violent than immunization.

By 1914, nearly a decade and a half after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, and at least a year before studies at the Morgan lab and elsewhere challenged the efficacy of any eugenics program, the threat to progress represented by unmanaged reproduction was difficult to dispute.

But the eugenicists’ simple focus on ideal types and individual traits had its challengers.

After authoring Biology (1912), an innovative college level textbook, microbiologist and Wesleyan professor Herbert William Conn turned his attention to the grander task of subsuming eugenics within a broader and more social evolutionary ideology.

In Social Heredity and Social Evolution: The Other Side of Eugenics (1914) Conn wrote, “Eugenics is pointing out to us in no unclear light that, whatever may be its social value, the family organization as it exists to-day, at least, in modern civilization, is not adapted for breeding the best type of men.”

Conn, a proud family man, was sure this was wrong.

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The Evolution of Textbooks: 1930s Edition

August 8, 2009

The 1930s were a time of remarkable innovation in the development of high school biology. As the subject grew in popularity to become the standard 10th grade science in the United States, textbook authors and publishers, in a wild race to define the curriculum and carve out market share, introduced new organizational structures and integrating schemes almost annually.

In the years following the 1925 Scopes trial, authors and publishers found that a few simple linguistic tricks were all that were necessary to keep community objections to the adoption of their textbooks to a minimum. Most found that if they substituted a weak synonym for the word ‘evolution’ – racial development, progressive development, development or change – and fudged a bit when discussing the origin of the human species, they could get on to saying whatever it was they wanted to say.

Scopes barely slowed them down.

An analysis of 9 popular textbooks published during the 1930s show that, in general, space devoted to the topic of evolution greatly increased. A couple of these textbooks – Fitzpatrick and Horton’s Biology (1935), Kroeber and Wolff’s Adventures With Living Things (1938) and Smith’s Exploring Biology (1938) – were as “evolutionary” as any published in the twentieth century.

A careful examination suggests that fundamentalist objections to the teaching of evolution had only a minor impact on the structure and content of high school biology textbooks in the 1930s. Looking past the trivial, these books tell a dramatic story of growing discomfort – spurred by a faltering “Dust Bowl” economy at home and the rise of fascist regimes overseas – with a biology-based defense of existing race, class and gender relationships explicit in Progressive era texts, and to biology’s claim that its role was in large part to help “improve,” control and exploit the natural world.

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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 1971 statement that, “No parents will in that future time have the right to burden society with a malformed or mentally incompetent child,” a remark that the New York Times wrote, “is still regularly deplored by opponents of abortion” (Martin, 2005). Other notices, such as the one that appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, labeled Glass more forgivingly as a “rabble-rouser,” and noted, “Of all his pronouncements, none permeated the cultural lexicon more than his 1962 prediction that cockroaches would be the sole survivors of nuclear war” (Bernstein, 2005, p. B6; Erk, 2005, pp. 164-173; Martin, 2005; Anonymous 2005, 14).

But Audra Wolfe notes that the “approximately 90 linear feet” of archive materials stored at the American Philosophical Society reveal “surprisingly little about his personality or political views” (Wolfe 2003).

Perhaps. But maybe all we need to begin to understand Glass is a more productive frame of reference.

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