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.

To get a sense of where things went in the 1930s, at least relative to the topic of evolution, all we have to do is compare the first new biology textbook published in that decade to the last.

George W. Hunter devoted just 15 pages of his 1931 Problems in Biology to evolutionary topics. This was roughly the same amount of evolutionary content Hunter included in his famous 1914 textbook, A Civic Biology. In contrast, Ella Thea Smith closed her 1938 Exploring Biology with 150 pages devoted to evolutionary themes – the fossil record, theories of organic evolution, and heredity and environment and their relationship to development and behavior.


Though biology as a year-long discrete course of study had been offered in a few American high schools starting just after the turn of the twentieth century, the subject only established itself as the standard 10th grade science a couple of decades in. Even then, classroom biology remained in flux. Publishers and authors competed to create the textbook that would define the curriculum. This led to a decade of innovation matched only by the 1960s.

Textbooks published during the 1930s can be bucketed into one of three general categories.

  1. Anthropocentric applied economic and civic biology textbooks (like Hunter’s Problems in Biology) which emphasized improvement of nature, the conquest of disease and the maximization of resources
  2. Non-anthropocentric unity of life biology textbooks, like Alfred Kinsey’s New Introduction to Biology (first published in 1926 as An Introduction to Biology) and Smith’s Exploring Biology that emphasized appreciation of nature and natural cycles and processes
  3. Phylogenetic biology textbooks that stitched together once separate semester-length courses on botany, zoology and human physiology, like Truman J. Moon’s Biology for Beginners

All three schemes had their origins in classroom biology’s earlier two decades. Phylogeneic textbooks, the scheme employed by most early biology textbooks, began to be displaced in the 1920s by trendier, more authoritarian, more “purposeful” economic and civic biology textbooks. However, as changing political and social conditions challenged key premises upon which these purposeful texts were based, the style began to fall out of favor. Phylogenetic textbooks, tacking on bits from their competitors, regained popularity, and along with a new class of unity of life textbooks, evolved toward a generalized curriculum.


George W. Hunter’s Problems in Biology (1931) was the author’s first fully new textbook post-Scopes. In it he developed themes introduced in his A Civic Biology (1914). For Hunter, the lesson of evolution, or progressive development as he chose to label evolution in the years after Scopes, was the “natural” advance of Western civilization and an associated human domination and control of the environment. Missing or intentionally misconstruing Charles Darwin’s argument, Hunter positioned the discussion of pigeons found in the opening chapters of Origins not as an analog for natural selection, as Darwin intended, but as a blueprint for selective breeding (605).

Hunter’s scheme was later adapted (though considerably dumbed-down) in Baker and Mills’ Dynamic Biology (1933) and Curtis, Caldwell and Sherman’s Biology for Today (1934). As in Hunter, these texts framed the topic of evolution not as an historic phenomenon but as a practice that could be mastered. A blueprint for the productive application of biology.

Economic and civic biologies invariably linked evolution with eugenics.

This scheme reached it apotheosis in 1935 with the publication of Frederick L. Fitzpatrick and Ralph E. Horton’s economically titled Biology. Proudly evolutionary (though still careful not to use that word) Biology was the first American textbook to push evolution right to the front of the text. It opened with a unit titled “The Changing Environment,” which included a chapter on human evolution, and closed with a unit titled “Plants and Animals in Relation to Human Affairs,” culminating with a chapter titled “Improvement of the Race.” The text unselfconsciously promoted eugenics, citing Justice Holmes’ famous quote: “three generations of imbeciles are enough” (606).

Fitzpatrick and Horton’s unit-based structure and use of evolution as biology’s organizing principle was in some ways ahead of its time. Such confident application of evolution as a device to structure a biology textbook would not be duplicated until the work of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) in the 1960s.

However, by its publication in 1935, the authoritarian, disempowering pedagogical style exemplified by Fitzpatrick and Horton’s Biology was falling out of favor, not coincidentally with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Paragraph-long disclaimers suggesting that eugenic principals were simply being “misapplied” by fascist regimes could not adequately counter the general thrust of an argument spelled out across 500-600 pages.

Starting with Ella Thea Smith’s 1938 Exploring Biology, and continuing through the 1940s, authors would drop or significantly downplay the promotion of environmental control and species improvement, including “improvement of the race” through eugenics, and begin to emphasize more practical, health oriented content. This trend would continue in the 1940s, evolving into the “life adjustment” curriculum.


In contrast to economic and civic biologies, unity of life biologies promoted a less “progressive” and more holistic view of life. The key textbook of this class was Alfred Kinsey’s An Introduction to Biology (1926), revised and reissued in 1933 as New Introduction to Biology.

Kinsey quite intentionally deemphasized the “value” of nature for humans. New Introduction to Biology contained only minimal content on human physiology and health, and almost none on the economic value of plants and animals. The text is notable for being one of the least anthropocentric biology textbooks produced in the twentieth century. Under this scheme, Kinsey was able to create a beautifully integrated text that included a 132-page unit on ecology, three decades ahead of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Marston Bates’ breakthrough biology textbook, the BSCS “Green Version.”

But Kinsey’s integration came at a cost. New Introduction to Biology (1933) contained no references to human evolution. Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, later non-anthropocentric biologies (Smith’s Exploring Biology, 1938; Bates’ BSCS “Green Version, 1963), though both “boldly evolutionary,” contained less content on human evolution than competing textbooks of their respective eras.


The third organizational scheme popular in the 1930s was the oldest, and would prove to be the most enduring.

Pioneered by Hunter in Elements of Biology (1907) and James E. Peabody and Arthur Hunt in Elementary Biology (1912), phylogenetic biology textbooks, which initially simply stitched together separate courses on botany, zoology and human physiology with only the most minimal bridging material, began to incorporate elements from competing economic and civic biology textbooks and unity of life textbooks to become sort of “catch all” texts that proved increasingly popular. And since they weren’t as rigidly organized against a Progressive era ideology, authors and publishers were able to adjust their books to changing social attitudes without tossing the whole text.

Smallwood, Reveley and Bailey’s New Biology (first published in 1916 as Practical Biology) claimed to be the country’s most popular biology textbook in the late 1930s. Moon’s Biology for Beginners (first published in 1921) would go on to become the most popular textbook in the country in the 1950s and into the 60s.

Similar though they were, Smallwood’s New Biology and Moon’s Biology for Beginners were different in one interesting regard: New Biology ordered its units zoology, botany, human physiology while Biology for Beginners ordered its units as Hunter had, botany, zoology, human physiology.

This ordering had interesting impact on the treatment of evolution in these textbooks.

Biology for Beginners followed the lead established by Hunter’s Essentials of Biology (1911). Human evolution (along with cultural evolution) was inserted to serve as a bridge between the textbook’s section on zoology and its section on human physiology. As in Hunter’s texts, this structure led Moon to split his discussion of the topic of human evolution from his more general discussion of genetics, heredity and eugenics. This split was not repaired until a major 1947 revision, the first to be titled Modern Biology, and then only partially.

The 1924 edition of New Biology is probably more accurately categorized as an economic and civic biology, not a phylogenetic biology. It’s novel ordering – zoology, human physiology and botany – suggested no general thrust, no narrative, no progress. Its authors interrupted a strict phylogenetic flow with examples of application throughout. For example, adaptation in mammals is followed by a discussion of the conservation, “necessary destruction” and economic importance of mammals.

Later editions trimmed the text, downplayed economic application, and reordered its content to close with human physiology.

Because later editions of New Biology were uniquely structured with botany in the middle, its authors were able to construct a more coherent and less commercially problematic section on evolution. In a series of chapters that covered more than 50 pages starting just after the midpoint of the text, New Biology, which contained very few references to evolution in 1924, spun a reasonably coherent story of “Animals and Plants of the Past and Future,” “Heredity and Variation,” and human antiquity and evolution.

The accidental (or clever) arrangement of zoology-botany-human physiology allowed the authors of New Biology to avoid some of the semantic traps their competitors struggled with, particularly the need to segue from mammals to humans without too strongly implying a connection between the human species and “a lower form of ape,” a sticky point with fundamentalists.


With the publication of Ella Thea Smith’s Exploring Biology in 1938, high school biology textbooks in the United States finally caught up with their college textbook kin, and to current knowledge. Though they were not as “high science” (or as difficult) as the textbooks developed by the BSCS in the early 1960s, the best textbooks, or Smith’s textbook anyway, presented a challenging and empowering curriculum.

Textbooks would continue to evolve through the 1940s.

Economic and civic biology textbooks either disappeared entirely or mutated into amalgam phylogenetic texts, unable to adjust to shifting gender, race and class norms. Kinsey’s textbook too disappeared, with the last revision published in 1938, though this might have been due to waning interest on the part of its author. Smith would advance the unity of life textbook scheme, and put it on an equal competitive footing with Moon’s ancient, yet perennially popular phylogenetic textbook. These two textbooks, Exploring Biology and Modern Biology, would compete head to head in every state in the Union into the early 1960s, and together account for 75% of textbooks purchased.


Baker, Arthur O., Lewis H. Mills. 1933. Dynamic Biology. New York: Rand McNally & Company.

Curtis, Francis D., Otis W. Caldwell, Nina Henry Sherman. 1934. Biology for Today. Boston: Ginn and Company.

Fitzpatrick, Frederick L., Ralph E. Horton. 1935. Biology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Hunter, George W. 1931. Problems in Biology. New York: American Book Company.

Kinsey, Alfred C. 1933. New Introduction to Biology. Chicago: Lippincott Company.

Moon, Truman J., Paul B. Mann. 1933. Biology for Beginners. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

–. 1938. Biology: A Revision of Biology for Beginners. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Smallwood, W. M., Ida L. Reveley, Guy A. Bailey. 1934. New Biology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Smith, Ella Thea. 1938. Exploring Biology. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.


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