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 It was also among the most retrograde and out of date.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?


When we examine the history of high school biology textbooks from the early 1900s into the 1960s, we actually see a general trend, after a decade-long dip following the Scopes trial, toward inclusion and increased emphasis on the topic of evolution through 1950. But into the 50s, the curve flattens and then begins to bend downward.

Scholars contend that this reversal is evidence that conservative cultural forces had the power to retard science education, and that in the 1950s their secret stranglehold was tightening.

But the downward trend in the presentation of the topic of evolution is due almost entirely to the gravitational influence of one dark star, Moon’s market-leading Modern Biology. Though it is unarguably true that fundamentalist objections to evolution moderated the topic’s presentation in textbooks from the early 1920s on, other less nefarious, and often definably progressive, institutional, historic and economic forces were at work as well.


Modern Biology was a post-war rewrite of Truman J. Moon’s classic, Biology for Beginners (later titled simply Biology). Though Moon died in 1946, he was listed as lead author on editions published through 1963.

Moon’s book began as a very basic phylogenetic text, with distinct sections on botany, zoology and human physiology. In both its 1921 and 1926 editions, the text indexed the topic of evolution and covered the subject in three very short chapters totaling 16 pages that bridged the zoology and human physiology sections. Moon connected organic evolution to cultural evolution in order to introduce humans as “the most advanced species” and provide some framework and rationale for the mish mash of health and habit control topics that would follow, many of which were mandated by the New York State Education Department.

Though it was well regarded among educators, Moon’s text was already behind the times when first published in 1921. Other authors – most notably Hunter, Hodge and Atwood – had jumped hard on economic biology bandwagon. Their textbooks, including Hunter’s Civic Biology (1914), the textbook at the center of the Scopes trail, presented the theory of evolution in harsh progressionist terms (labeling it “the doctrine of evolution”) to support an activist position regarding the value and necessity of species improvement and eugenic control.

Now, though Stephen Jay Gould suggests otherwise, there is little evidence that the Bryan-led anti-evolution movement was in any meaningful way an anti-eugenic movement. However, the movement did force publishers to retreat from “doctrinal” language regarding the topic of evolution. This, along with changing attitudes toward the concept of the control of nature, undercut economic biology’s central arguments and led to a sharp decline in the popularity of the model.

By decade’s end, the economic model was dead (though Hunter never got the message).

Moon jumped into the vacuum.

Establishing a pattern the book would follow for decades, Moon cribbed from his flailing competitors. He tacked on chapters on civic biology and heredity, including eugenics, to create a “value oriented” all-in-one textbook. He also adjusted his work to fit the new national norms by substituting ‘racial development’ for ‘evolution’ and dialing back a bit on mentions of Darwin. However, it is important to note that under the synonym ‘racial development,’ Moon’s bridging section on organic and cultural evolution actually grew from 16 pages to 35 in 1933, and expanded again to 40 pages in 1938. The book, now called Biology, would retain this form through its 1946 edition, and during those years grow in popularity.


By the end of World War II, a new model of biology was beginning to gain favor. With roots that extended back through Alfred Kinsey’s 1926 An Introduction to Biology, a less progressionist “unity of life” model served as the armature for several breakthrough textbooks, including Kroeber and Wolff’s Adventures with Living Things and Ella Thea Smith’s Exploring Biology.

These texts abandoned the botany-zoology-human physiology phylogenetic organizational structure in favor of an integrated fundamentals, systems and processes approach. Like the older economic biology textbooks, these unity of life textbooks climaxed with a presentation of the theory of evolution. However unlike the older texts, evolution in the newer books was presented less as a foundation for manipulation and management of nature and culture, and more as a crowing achievement of pure science. Evolution was the climax of the text because it was the biggest idea biology owned.

In response to the challenge presented by these new competitors, Moon’s publisher, Holt, invested (as minimally as possible) in a “major” text revision designed to make the book at least look up to date. In 1947, Holt teamed editor Milton Hopkins with a high school teacher from Indianapolis named James H. Otto to update the aging text. Their revised “product” would prove extremely popular.

However, though the 1947 Modern Biology looked modern, it barely strayed, in either content or ideology, from Moon’s 1921 original. Otto did clear away a quarter century of bric-a-brac, the random bits of health and habit advice that had attached to biology in the 20s and 30s. Otto also more than doubled the number of pages devoted to set-up – the scientific method, the chemistry of life and balance in nature. Critically, Otto also modernized the narrative by moving most of the discussion of the topic of evolution from the bridging section to the climax of the book.

Ironically, the Modern Biology Otto and Hopkins created through their reorganization was more a throwback than an update. The book’s closing chapters linked heredity, reproduction, genetics, eugenics and evolution into a progressionist narrative that resembled the older economic model more than it did the newer unity of life model.

But the changes proved popular and ensured their textbook’s continued march to market domination.

The only textbook to challenge Modern Biology in the 1950s was Ella Thea Smith’s Exploring Biology. Unlike Modern Biology, Smith’s book kept pace with current science. The 1949 edition was the first textbook to present the modern synthesis. The 1959 edition benefited from a thorough combing in 1956 by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson. Unfortunately, in a move it would later regret, Exploring Biology’s publisher, Harcourt, made the decision to chase the market leader by cutting content relative to human evolution from this later edition.

Holt retaliated by reintroducing human evolution into the 1960 edition of Modern Biology. But that textbook was not yet part of the landscape when the BSCS first met on February 5, 1959. Though the BSCS did not at first see the “reintroduction” of evolution into American classrooms as a major issue, nor expect such a reintroduction to be particularly controversial, by 1961, influenced by its newest steering committee member, geneticist Hermann J. Muller, the group began to frame its mission in more activist terms. Though Muller’s complaint was mostly that textbooks weren’t doing enough to educate students as to the possibilities of directed evolutionary progress, scholars in the 1970s would frame the entire enterprise as an effort to counter creeping capitulation to Christian fundamentalism. Today, with everyone from Ben Stein to Ann Coulter to Kirk Cameron shilling for the Discovery Institute and telling stories of the “liberal plot” that is “Darwinism,” a counter-narrative is certainly necessary. The 1956 edition of Modern Biology, because it cut references to human evolution, has become something of a touchstone in an anti-creationist mythology. Undeserving though it might be, Modern Biology has become a symbol of what happens when scientists and educators let their guard down.


Engleman, Laura, (ed.). 2001. The BSCS Story: A History of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study. Colorado Springs: BSCS.

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1983. Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Grabiner, Judith V., Peter D. Miller, 1974. “Effects of the Scopes Trial.” Science 185: 832-837.

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

Moon, Truman J. 1921. Biology for Beginners, New York: Henry Holt and Company. Reproduced in facsimile, 1981. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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

–. 1946. Biology: A Revision of Biology for Beginners. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Moon, Truman J., Paul B. Mann, James H. Otto. 1947. Modern Biology. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

–. 1951. Modern Biology. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

–. 1956. Modern Biology. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Moon, Truman J., James H. Otto, Albert Towle. 1960. Modern Biology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

–. 1963. Modern Biology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Otto, James H., Albert Towle. 1965. Modern Biology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

–. 1969. Modern Biology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Rudolph, John L. 2002. Scientists in the Classroom: The Cold War Reconstruction of American Science Education. New York: Palgrave.

Skoog, Gerald. 1979. “Topic of Evolution in Secondary School Biology Textbooks: 1900-1977.” Science Education 63: 621-640.

Smith, Ella Thea. 1943. Exploring Biology: New Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

–. 1959. Exploring Biology: Fifth Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.


  1. Michael – also notice that human evolution, such as it was presented in Moon’s text, reappeared in its traditional spot (after being deleted from the ’56 edition), right after the book’s bit on mammals and right before the first bits on human physiology.

    The word ‘evolution’ does not appear in Moon’s textbook until 1963, thought the topic was never absent. Between 1933 and 1963, ‘racial development’ was the curious substitute.

  2. That was quite the book sale. You picked up the Alpha and the Omega of high school textbooks. That ’60 Modern Biology was the last of its kind, the ’63 BSCS Green, the first.

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