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.

The Day Eugenics Died

July 3, 2009

I was not taught much of the history of eugenics in school, but I somehow absorbed that it was an “old” idea, one that had been thoroughly discredited once the horrors of the Nazis were exposed.

So it came as a bit of a surprise to find that many American high school and college biology textbooks continued to discuss eugenics as if it were a non-controversial idea well into the rock-and-roll era. In fact, the most popular textbook published in 1960, Moon, Otto and Towle’s Modern Biology, referred to eugenics as “a young science,” (648) and suggested its methods would surely begin to see application once a few more properly studied human generations had passed.

Yes, Modern Biology was always a bit behind the times. But when it came to eugenics, it wasn’t behind by that many years.

Though a few popular textbook authors began to challenge the assumptions of eugenicists starting in the late 1930s (Smith, 1938) and then significantly downplay or drop the topic entirely starting in the 1940s (Gruenberg and Bingham, 1944), most continued to repeat, in only slightly abridged form, the same claims of eugenic necessity and urgency advanced in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rand McNally’s Dynamic Biology series – Dynamic Biology (1933), Dynamic Biology Today (1943) and New Dynamic Biology (1959) – provides an illustrative example of the history of the idea of eugenics in American high school textbooks. A comparison of these texts not only demonstrates the continued affection authors held for the idea of eugenics, but, when one looks carefully, hints strongly at what finally forced authors to abandon explicit promotion of the topic.

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Bentley Glass’ 1949 Introduction

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.

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Classroom Biology: Before and After the Bomb

May 26, 2009

Biology textbook authors in the first decades of the twentieth century, exploiting cultural anxieties fanned by Madison Grant, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Paul Popenoe and other eugenic theorists, helped undercut democracy and shore up the status quo by “confirming” suspicions that the “strongest” weren’t breeding, the “weakest” weren’t dying and that workers who did not know their genetically-determined place were a threat to the social order.

Into the 1940s, these authors provided an assist to the powers that be by blithely promoting eugenic marriage, forced sterilization of the “feebleminded” and, um, carefully considered career choice as necessary to keep industrial culture “evolving” along its proper progressive path. As Alfred Kinsey (yes, that Alfred Kinsey) counseled in his textbook, “there are really very few of us who have the necessary heredities to make good Presidents of the United States.” (Kinsey 1926, 174; Kinsey 1933 and 1938, 387-88.)

It was all quite reactionary, and generally uncontroversial. That is until World War II, when in a flash it became uncool to casually disrespect democracy, promote authoritarian control or “prove” ones arguments for managed progress based on hierarchical notions of race and class.

Few textbooks made it through unscathed.

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Marston Bates’ Moment of Zen

May 16, 2009

Though Rachel Carson is usually credited for raising the public’s awareness of ecology, as Marion Clawson noted, it was Marston Bates’ 1960 book, The Forest and the Sea, not Silent Spring, that made “ecology a household word.”

Though remembered today for his very quotable quotes,” Bates was a serious critic who helped biologists move beyond promotion of the the technological fix.

In a series of books published between 1950 and the early 1960s, Marston Bates attempted to cut through the a thicket of progressionist pretenses and clear the ground for a new philosophy of science.

Dismissive of the popular pseudo-sciences of his day including still popular theories of climatic determinism and eugenic management, and equally skeptical of grand “evolving” ethical systems like Julian Huxley’s “evolutionary humanism,” Bates adopted Aldo Leopold’s idea of an “ecological conscience” as the new metaphysics, and promoted ecological diversity as a first principal.

Unfortunately, Bates, bathed in the apocalyptic writings of William Vogt and Harrison Brown, could not shed the view of human culture as an evolutionary mistake; a dangerous threat to the natural order.

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The Case of the Disappearing Darwin

May 15, 2009

It’s a powerful symbol of capitulation: the straight on, serious portrait of Charles Darwin, the wizened, white bearded author of the Origin of Species and father of modern biology, was stripped from the frontispiece of a popular high school textbook, replaced by, of all things, a cartoon of the human digestive tract. According to New York Times writer Susan Jacoby, the insidious nature of the fundamentalist campaign to censor biology textbooks after the Scopes trial of 1925 is “literally illustrated” by this act. In 1921, Darwin was there. By 1926, he was gone. As were all mentions of his theory of evolution.

As with any myth, this one contains a few kernels of truth.

Yes, Darwin did grace the frontispiece of the 1921 edition of Truman J. Moon’s Biology for Beginners. Yes, his portrait was replaced in 1926 by a cartoon of the digestive tract. And yes, by the 1933 edition, the word evolution was gone, not to reappear until after a federally funded effort directed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) drove all publishers to modernize their texts in the 1960s.

But this story skips lightly over a few complicating facts.

First, Moon replaced the portrait of Darwin with a portrait of Louis Pasteur (full text) in 1924, the year before Scopes. Second, Moon changed his text little between 1924 and editions and revisions published into the early 1930s. And third, though the word evolution did disappear from Moon’s textbook, the number of pages devoted to the subject – under the label “racial development” – actually grew considerably – from 17 pages in 1921, to 68 in 1933. Early scholarship, including Peter Miller’s 1966 honors thesis, “Darwin and the Textbooks,” and Judith Grabiner and Peter Miller’s 1974 article, “Effects of the Scopes Trial,” noted these nuances. However, in repeated retellings, the story has been simplified, and critical information has been lost.

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Alfred Kinsey: Teaching Eugenics and Evolution

May 14, 2009

Alfred Kinsey, famous for his studies of human sexuality, was also a pioneer in the teaching of biology.

Kinsey’s 1926 textbook, An Introduction to Biology (reissued with minor revisions in 1933 and 1938 as A New Introduction to Biology) is considered one of the best biology textbooks of the era. Kinsey, it has been widely noted, was the only scientist to author a popular high school textbook. Almost all others were written by professional educators.

Methods in Biology, provides an interesting glimpse into how a scientist in the 1930s counseled prospective teachers on how to navigate potential issues when handling the “related” topics of eugenics and evolution.

Two interesting quotes: First, concerning eugenics, Kinsey writes, “Only recently have there been indications that eugenics is going to find a permanent place both in high school and college teaching. Events of the last decade have made the younger generation wonder how far genetic factors account for the dependence of a third of the population on the other two-thirds, even in times of prosperity.” Second, regarding evolution, Kinsey writes, “The biology teacher who cannot present evolution without offending a community is probably indiscreet in the handling of the material.”

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James Reid, Ella Thea Smith and G. G. Simpson

May 12, 2009

James M. Reid, an editor at Harcourt Brace from 1924 to 1960, played a crucial role in the history of biology textbooks in the United States.

In his 1969 autobiography, An Adventure in Textbooks, Reid discussed how he helped Ella Thea Smith bring her homemade textbook, complete with its thorough discussion of the theory of evolution, to market in 1938. Reid also described how he connected Smith with paleontologist and modern synthesis architect George Gaylord Simpson. Through Reid, Smith and Simpson significantly influenced each other’s work. Smith reviewed the MS of Simpson’s breakthrough college biologoy textbook, Life, as it was being written in the early 1950s. Reid hoped positive encouragement from Smith would boost Simpson who was struggling with his text. In return, Simpson provided a detailed critique (handwritten on the back of 7 sheets of American Museum of Natural History letterhead) of Smith’s textbook leading to significant improvements between its fourth (1954) and fifth (1959) editions.

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“Darwin and the Textbooks” (1966) by Peter D. Miller

May 12, 2009

Judith Grabiner and Peter Miller’s seminal article on the treatment of the topic of evolution in American high school textbooks, “Effects of the Scopes Trial” (1974), was based partially on Peter Miller’s 1966 Harvard honors thesis, “Darwin and the Textbooks.”

Miller’s thesis is interesting as it was among the first papers to suggest that biology textbook authors and publishers progressively downplayed the theory of evolution in response to pressure from religious fundamentalists. This theme, expanded by Grabiner and amplified in the work of Gerald Skoog, has been referenced by numerous scholars examining the conflict between religion and science since.

OF INTEREST TO SCHOLARS: Miller conducted a reasonably thorough survey of textbook publishers and state textbook approval authorities to collect evidence for his thesis. He attached that survey as an appendix to his paper.

Miller, Peter D. 1966. “Darwin and the Textbooks.”
Honors thesis, Harvard University.

PDF: Available by request through Harvard Hollis.

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Errata: “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks”

Ladouceur, Ronald P. 2008. “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks.” Journal of the History of Biology 41:435-471.

The errors listed below are entirely the responsibility of the author, not the JOH, its proofreaders, typesetters or printers.

Page 435, keywords.
Civic Biology, Exploring Biology, Modern Biology, and Scopes Trial are proper nouns and should be capitalized.

Page 441, line 22.
Change Herman to Hermann.

Page 442, footnote 24, line 2.
Change Darwinian to Darwin.

Page 445, footnote 37, line 8.
Change between 1948 and 1952 to between 1948 and 1954.

Page 446, line 1.
Change a coherent to as a coherent.

Page 450, lines 16 and 17.
Change As Alfred Kinsey would in his textbook published 12 years later to As Alfred Kinsey would in his 1926 textbook.

Page 451, footnote 60.
Change Engles, 1911 to Engles, 1991.

Page 452, footnote 63.
Change Ibid. to Moon, 1921.

Page 459, footnote 92.
Change Smith, 1942 to Smith, 1943

Page 459, footnote 94.
Change the same year to just one year after.

Page 462, line 21.
Change Herman to Hermann.

Page 467, footnote 128.
Change Seldon to Selden.

Page 470, line 23.
Change Salem Historical Association to Salem Historical Society.

Page 470, line 26.
Change 1942, Exploring Biology to 1943, Exploring Biology.

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Ella Thea Smith’s ‘Exploring Biology’

March 22, 2009

Ella Thea Smith was the author of the second most popular high school biology textbook in the United States in the 1950s, Exploring Biology. At the height of its popularity it commanded roughly 25% of the market. Exploring Biology was first published in 1938, and was revised in 1943, ’49, ’54, ’59 and ’66. It featured many firsts.

The 1938 edition featured extensive treatments of the topics of human evolution and reproduction. Though her publisher expected the book to do poorly in the south, it was approved for use in the Atlanta (GA) school district as well as many other areas in the country. By the 1960s her textbook was in use in every state.

The 1943 edition featured a comprehensive section on race based on Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish’s “The Races of Mankind,” a pamphlet that was commissioned, produced, but then “notoriously” suppressed by the US Army. Interestingly, Smith’s ’43 text, with its section on race intact, was reprinted under paper cover for use by the US Marines in 1945.

The ’49 edition of Exploring Biology was the first American textbook to feature a discussion of the modern synthesis, reflecting the influence of one of Smith’s readers, paleontologist and synthesis architect George Gaylord Simpson. Smith in turn would serve as a reader, and at one low point, a critical morale booster for Simpson during the time he was writing Life, his breakthrough 1957 college biology textbook.

And between 1959 and 1961, Smith served on the steering committee of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), the group credited for “reintroducing” the topic of evolution in its three 1963 textbooks, the Yellow, Blue, and Green Versions. Ironically, it was a BSCS textbook, the Yellow Version, also published by Harcourt, Brace, and World, which supplanted Smith’s work, though Exploring Biology remained in use in classrooms into the 1970s.

Smith’s impressive achievements, though noted in passing by several scholars (Miller, 1966; Grabiner and Miller, 1974; Skoog, 1979), have never received the attention they deserve. Perhaps this is because Smith’s work does not fit well with a conventional narrative, popular since the mid-1970s, that textbooks published after the Scopes trial of 1925 became progressively “less scientific” as authors and publishers capitulated to complaints by fundamentalist Christians and other conservative cultural forces and progressively eliminated references to evolution and other controversial topics. This narrative suggests that textbooks published between 1926 and 1963 do not reflect then current science, or perhaps more importantly, the social views of scientists.

A thorough discussion of this topic can be found in the article “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks,” published in the 9.08 edition of the Journal of the History of Biology. Also see the compiled list of minor errors discovered in the article by the author subsequent to publication and their corrections.

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