December 22, 2021

Bison from Civic BiologyTo our Rachel Carson-tuned ears, the word conservation means allowing nature to hold sway, to designate areas as wetlands, protected habitats and forever wild, to be humble and accept that nature is usually smarter than we are. But to biology textbook authors in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, influenced by the eugenic ideas of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and others, conservation meant something else entirely. It meant first, preserving select symbols of American virility, like the redwood tree, the bison, and most importantly, their own “great race,” and second, managing the rest of nature – forests, water resources, wildlife, and soil – so that it could be exploited maximally without collapse.

This ideology entered the classroom, briefly, in the mid-1920s with Benjamin Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life (1925) [1] and George W. Hunter’s New Civic Biology (1926). [2] The two books were similar in structure (even though their authors’ politics were quite different). Both ended with linked chapters on conservation leading to a closing call for eugenic management. But the high school classroom proved a poor platform for “human conservation,” as it was called. [3] New Civic Biology along with other harsh economic biologies published in the early 1920s [4] gave way in the market to less didactic works. [5] Scholars often attribute this shift to the effect of the Scopes trial and the chilling effect it had on a bold or matter of fact presentation of evolution. But with education through the tenth grade now compulsory in all states, biology teachers, facing classrooms full of not just college-bound students but students from across the economic spectrum, may simply have preferred not to present lessons that referred to some of those students as “parasitic on society” (Hunter, 1926, 399). [6]

But in college classrooms it was another story.

In his 1926 update to Civic Biology, retitled New Civic Biology, George W. Hunter introduced the infamous (and now considered fictitious) story of Martin Kallikak under the section title, “Parasitism and Its Cost to Society.”

At the college level, where students were assumed to be winners of biology’s genetic lottery, professors had no trouble teaching lessons on the genetic foundation of current class and racial relationships. With few exceptions, college biology textbooks remained propagandistically eugenic into the early 1930s. Elbert Cole in An Introduction to Biology (1933), in very Hunter-like language, lamented the limits of eugenic management, writing, “we are somewhat restricted in what can be done, for society will not permit the destruction of the weak and unfit” (478). Others, including Samuel J. Holmes in Life and Evolution (1926), Henry R. Barrows in College Biology (1930), and Grace E. White in General Biology (1933), if not quite as straightforward as Cole, adopted similar stances.

From Bad to Worse to Inexcusable

Among the most brutal of this lot was Man and the Nature of His Biological World (1934) by Frank C. Jean, Ezra C. Harrah and Fred L. Herman, all science professors – biology, chemistry and physics, respectively – at Colorado State College of Education. Influenced by the (already a decade out of date) work of Leonas L. Burlingame and Lewis M. Terman, the authors promoted the topic of eugenics unapologetically in their debut textbook.

Their timing, it turned out, was terrible. With Nazism on the rise in Germany, a major institutional funder of eugenics, the Carnegie Institute, pulled its support in 1935. Former enthusiasts, like Julian Huxley and Hermann Muller, backed away, claiming society was not yet sufficiently “leveled up” to allow intelligent eugenic management. It seemed Jean, Harrah and Herman, and college eugenics in general, were headed to the dustbin.

But then …

The Dust Bowl

Just as public passion for eugenics had started to wane, the Dust Bowl struck, and the very publicly promoted success of New Deal-era land and resource management efforts provided Jean, Harrah and Herman a perfect pivot opportunity. In their now retitled Man and His Biological World (1944), the authors used the Dust Bowl as central proof of the need for expert management of resources. The authors introduced a new chapter that alerted students to the near total loss of forests, wildlife, and topsoil that had occurred just the decade before and the heroic efforts by experts to salvage their “national heritage.” The authors then reorganized their formerly scattered chapters on evolution, heredity, and cultural development into a single coherent narrative, arguing that Americans needed to grant authority to scientists, immediately, to manage human behavior as they had natural resources.

Conservation was becoming a standard topic in biology textbooks in the 1940s. [7] But it was typically featured toward the end of a text, there primarily to reassure students and let them know that, now armed with knowledge of biology, they had some agency, some power to intelligently influence public policy.

Jean, Harrah and Herman deployed conservation quite differently, less to reassure and empower students, and more to shock them into unquestioningly accepting a long list of biological “truths” and the story they told.

And what story did those truths tell? In sum, that evolution was a progressive force, that it had worked over millions of years to create “man,” it’s “crowning achievement,” but that tax-supported public social services, greed, sloth, failure to accept one’s natural class status, and racial mixing were threatening to undermine that achievement.

Additionally, the authors claimed:

  • The “four main races” of humans had long evolved independently and were distinct relative to their respective levels of biologically based cultural development
  • Asia, despite some dispute among the experts, was the most likely region of origin of modern humans
  • Genetics was well understood and should be deployed broadly to both improve plants and animals and shore up the status and privileges of the dominant race and class
  • Intelligence could be measured and was determinative of one’s likely adult status, so should govern one’s educational and career ambitions
  • Crime was primarily a consequence of bad heredity
  • Relative status and fixed distinctive physical and cultural qualities of the races were demonstrative of the influence of climate on their evolutionary development
  • And that “the elimination of the eugenically unfit by humane methods” was one of the “perplexing social and cultural problems” students would face upon graduation (Jean et al., 1944 and 1952, 612)

Osborn and Other Bad Influences

Those familiar with the climatic determinism of Ellsworth Huntington and the race-based anthropology of Earnest Hooton, Carleton Coon, and particularly Henry Fairfield Osborn will recognize these ideas immediately. While true that other biology textbook authors, particularly on the college leve, also embraced these ideas, [8] no other book deployed conservation as didactically in support of eugenics as Jean, Harrah and Herman’s.

If one examines the textbook only for how well it covered the topic of evolution, one might give Man and His Biological World a pass. In the chapters immediately following its new section on conservation, the text presented a solid history of the theory of natural selection as outlined by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. It then covered all the standard points of evidence: morphology, embryology, geographical distribution, blood tests, domestication, fossils, and specific adaptations. But a quick examination of the textbook’s references betrays the authors’ ideology and intent.

In the 1944 edition of Man and His Biological World, end of chapter references were dominated by the most unapologetic eugenic works of the era, including Samuel Schmucker’s The Meaning of Evolution (1922)

Henry Fairfield Osborn, Director of the American Museum of Natural History

and the even more explicit Readings in Evolution, Genetics and Eugenics (1921) by Horatio Newman. [9] Most tellingly, the authors relied heavily on the work of Henry Fairfield Osborn. [10]

Understanding Osborn’s influence on mid-century textbook evolution, and specifically on Man and His Biological World, is critical (see Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Tragic Legacy of Piltdown Man). Through his American Museum of Natural History, Osborn had produced the ubiquitous reconstructed busts of “early man” – Java, Piltdown, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon – that for 50 years gave face to the supposedly progressive development of our species. From the later 1920s on, even as his own employees at the AMNH began moving toward accepting Africa and the birthplace of Homo sapiens and the modern synthesis as evolution’s most probable mechanism of change, Osborn became a fierce defender of a non-Darwinian theory of his own imagining, a theory of human evolution that positioned Cro-Magnon as history’s most “advanced” human variant, and current white Homo sapiens as somewhat regressed examples, degraded due to racial mixing.

Recapitulation? Really?

The terrible consequences of Jean, Harrah and Herman’s embrace of an Osborn-influenced evolutionary ideology becomes clear in their chapter titled “Man the Crowning Achievement.” Illustrating their story with infants hanging monkey-like from bars and toddlers covered head to toe with hair, the authors stated, quite incorrectly even for the time, that “scientists are able to account for these characters on no other grounds than that of recapitulation.” [11] And Jean, Harrah and Herman were remarkably straightforward in their racial proofs of recapitulation. Describing “the four subspecies of modern man,” the authors wrote:

Presented as proof of recapitulation, the idea that growth stages from younger to older recapitulated evolutionary stages from “lower” to “higher.” The caption read: A month-old baby supported by its own grasp.

Of the subspecies of modern man, the aboriginal Australian are natives of Australia and Hindustan. They are tall, long-limbed, and almost chocolate in color. They vary in intelligence, some of them are quite teachable, while others represent the lowest plane of human mentality. The Negroid race is found in Africa south of the Sahara and in some of the adjacent islands, especially Madagascar. There are many subdivisions of this group, but for the most part they are characterized by flattened noses, wooly hair, and black or chocolate-colored skin. The Mongolians have a high degree of intelligence; but as a group they yield place, in enterprise and aggressiveness, to the fourth subspecies, the Caucasians. (469)

The authors then proceed to rank Caucasians by “type,” the Mediterranean, Alpine and Nordic, with “the white representatives in the Americas … recruited by immigration from the original stocks in the Old World” (469). If this rings a bell, it should, as this type of racial ranking was foundational to Nazi ideology. That Jean and his co-authors would publish this ranking in 1944 is marginally excusable, as the book had probably been in the works for a couple of years. That they republished it without disclaimer of any kind in 1952 is horrifying. But it is also suggestive of just how much the authors, and many if not most of their contemporaries, had invested in promoting a progressive evolutionary mythology.

Regarding the place of human origin, it was so central to the interlocking story told in Man and His Biological World that the authors simply had to bulldoze right through any doubts. They wrote:

The preponderance of evidence at present seems to point toward the general region of southwestern Asia. Some students of the problem would push the site as far northeast as central Asia, while others believe it may lie as far southwest as north-central Africa. Since the matter cannot be settled positively, let us place the region tentatively in southwestern Asia, a location which seems to have considerable evidence to support it. (emphasis added, 470-71)

No mention, of course, of a possible southern African origin, despite the discovery the “Taung Child,” or Australopithecus africanus, by South African quarrymen in 1924, described by neuroanatomist Raymond Dart in 1925, and already introduced to college textbooks by E. E. Stanford in Man & the Living World (1940). [12]

As Piltdown Goes …

Jean, Harrah and Herman practically swooned over Piltdown in 1934. They wrote, “While Darwin sat in his study at Down puzzling over the problem of human origins, the fossils of the Piltdown man were quietly reposing in a gravel pit not thirty miles away” (461). Then, going all in on Osborn’s ideas, in 1944 they wrote, “Piltdown man was far advanced over the early Asiatic man … [h]is cranial capacity … well within the limits of modern man” (462). [13] So central had Piltdown, Osborn’s ur-white man, become to the story of the early Asia-to-Europe story origin of modern humans that even when the “find” was definitively revealed as a hoax in 1953, several authors, notably Harvard’s Claude Villee, just couldn’t let the idea go. Piltdown didn’t completely disappear from textbooks until the early 1960s. It took Lewis and Mary Leakey’s discoveries at Olduvai Gorge to finally get textbook authors to consider an African origin for Homo sapiens.

The climax of Man and His Biological World came in its last 80 pages. Together, they purported to explain the genetic underpinnings of intelligence, intellectual disability, criminality, class status, career choice, and longevity. The authors listed the growing costs of managing the unfit and compensating for the damage they do to society, calculated by the FBI, according to the authors, at $15,000,000,000 in 1938. They alerted students to the long-term consequences of allowing “people of lower mentality” to outbreed the more intelligent, projecting that if an active program of management were not put in place immediately, there would be a “2 to 3 per cent” decline annually in “the average intelligence of the American people” (545).

Nothing to See Here, Move Along

Eugenically oriented textbook authors always faced contradictions they could not resolve. They positioned themselves (and other white people) as the proud product of evolutionary progress, while simultaneously positioning their “progressed race” as less specialized, less virile, and in need of managerial assistance. They lauded hybrid vigor as it related to plant and animal breeding but warned of degeneracy if the races interbred. They asserted that the general intelligence of the population was in decline due to the higher birth rates among the lower classes while warning that the country’s elite were themselves growing degenerate, basking in luxury while failing to procreate, and that if these trends continued, “onslaughts of strong, virile, unspoiled barbaric invaders – people who were not softened by the enervating influences of a voluptuous life” would soon cause the fall of the current social order (545).

Class and Race (and Gender)

Whatever the claim, eugenics always came back to class and race, and the role biologists and biology teachers had in maintaining the status quo. In hindsight, it was no science at all, merely a dressed up folk science whose theories and rationalizations tracked with the demands and insecurities of the dominant culture of the time.

Man and His Biological World makes visible the ugly, intertwined, contradictory and racist arguments used to prop up mid-century public biology’s claims to authority. Though Man did not survive the 1950s, its ideas did not die. They just got buffed up and handed off, and into to 1970s the most popular high school and college textbooks continued to promote eugenic management – through the fall of Piltdown, through the Civil Rights Movement, and into our Earth Day present – without disclaimer.

Liberally referenced in the 1952 edition of Man and His Biological World was a new college textbook, Biology: The Human Approach (1950) by Harvard’s Claude A. Villee. Lauded in a 2006 Harvard Gazette memoriam for his contributions to “the revolution in the science of reproduction,” Villee was no hero to the working class. He was still explicitly preaching the eugenic creed as late as 1967, still using “idiot,” “imbecile,” “moron” and “feeble-minded” as clinical terms, still warning that “the average intelligence of the population is decreasing generation to generation” due to differential reproduction, and still suggesting that the United States should sterilize 2% of its population, or 4,000,000 million people. (See The Eugenic Zombie in the Graveyard of Textbooks.) [14]

Why is it we don’t actively remember this history, or actively work to cover it up? Is it possible it is because eugenic ideas and other supposedly science-based defenses and structures are still working to the dominant culture’s benefit? Have we purged race-based and class-based rationalizations from our science textbooks, or will future historians read our current pedestalization of the STEM subjects as little more than another effort to shore up, to rationalize, to conserve current class and race-based cultural relationships?

This 1941 mural in the Farmerville, Texas, post office, Soil Conservation in Collin County by Jerry Bywaters, was described by art historian Waldemar Januszczak as a public service announcement promoting the benefits of contour farming.


Based on a quick review of biology textbooks, I first imagined this article would indict the conservation movement as a handmaiden to eugenic ideology. But while it is true that early eugenicists like Theodore Roosevelt and Madison Grant connected the two topics, as early as the mid-1930s, a strong divide developed between conservation as maximum resource exploitation and ecology as the study and protection of systems. Hunter claimed nature had been permanently thrown out of balance. Jean, Harrah and Herman used public alarm regarding the mismanagement resources and the scouring of the land to underpin their promotion of eugenics. But these cases were unusual, or at least unusually extreme. The two camps were in fact representative of incompatible world views. To illustrate, when the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study issued its three test textbooks in 1960, Hermann Muller, a eugenicist of the old school, took exception to the textbook then in development under the direction of Marston Bates, the ecology centric BSCS “green version.” Muller didn’t even recognize it as biology. Fortunately, Bates was a swift and competent writer, and by the time he came under criticism, the director of the program, geneticist Bentley Glass, told Muller the text was too far along to significantly alter.


[1] Gruenberg, influenced by the teachings of Felix Adler and the Ethical Culture movement, was the (slightly) more tentative of the two. His previous book, Elementary Biology (1919), had not mentioned eugenics. His next and final one, Biology and Man (1944), would not either. Advocating caution, in 1919 Gruenberg wrote, “a civilized community can do no less than give every baby the fullest opportunity to show what is in him, without prejudice about the history or the standing of his family … individuals with fine and useful abilities have come from families of the humblest stations” (Gruenberg 1925, 585-586). After the publication of Biology and Human Life, Gruenberg left teaching to focus on child development, sex education and educational policy.

[2] Hunter was more sure genes determined destiny. He wrote, “Some men have become great in spite of handicaps, but it was because their heredity was such that they could not be denied success” (Hunter 1926, 396). Though forced by his publisher in response to complaints from Christian evangelicals to dial back on his doctrinaire presentation of the theory of evolution, which he had used to frame his eugenic arguments in Civic Biology (1914), Hunter found in conservation a fine substitute. According to Hunter, all of nature, including people, needed to be conserved, not in the sense of saved but in the sense of managed. “The balance of life,” he wrote, “had been disturbed by man and must be artificially adjusted.” For an excellent overview of this topic, see: Adam R. Shapiro, “Civic Biology and the Origin of the School Antievolution Movement,” Journal of the History of Biology Vol. 41, No. 3 (Fall, 2008), 409-433.

[3] See: Herbert E. Walter, Genetics (Norwood, Mass: Norwood Press, 1913), 244.

[4] Examples include: William Atwood’s Civic and Economic Biology (1922); James Peabody and Arthur Hunt’s Biology and Human Welfare (1924).

[5] Examples include: W. M. Smallwood, Ida Reveley and Guy Bailey’s Biology for High Schools/New Biology (1920); Truman J. Moon’s Biology for Beginners/Biology (1921).

[6] There were exceptions. As early as 1922, Lorande L. Woodruff warned in Foundations of Biology, “we are woefully ignorant of the cause of variations” (298).

[7] After Gruenberg’s withdrawal and Hunter discommendation, coverage of conservation disappeared from most high school and college biology textbooks for the next few years. Helen Garder Manx included a conservation-like chapter titled “Balance in Nature” in The Living World (1933). A chapter titled “How Human Life is Conserved” closed Charles J. Pieper, Wilbur L. Beauchamp and Orlin D. Frank’s Everyday Problems in Biology (1936), though that chapter was devoted to health and medicine. The first biology textbook to center resource conservation was Elwood D. Heiss, Ellsworth S. Osbourn and J. Gordon Manzer’s Our World of Living Things (1936). Published in St. Louis by the Webster Publishing Company, Heiss’ textbook clearly anticipated and perhaps even influenced Man and His Biological World, was the first to mention dust storms and government programs designed to manage soil, water, forest and wildlife resources (Heiss 1936, 221-252).

[8] There were dissenters. As early as 1940, E. E. Stanford in Man & the Living World, citing the discovery of the “Taungs skull” in the 1920s, suggested Africa, not Asia, was the were modern humans first evolved (Stanford 1940 (1947), 644-45. In 1943, Ella Thea Smith in Exploring Biology challenged the concepts of racial superiority (Smith 1943, 109-11). And the Piltdown “finds,” used by many authors as evidence of a kind of “impelled” evolutionary progress that later manifested in the supposedly more “advanced” Cro-Magnon and modern Caucasians, per Osborn’s favored theory, were rarely presented without disclaimer.

[9] Like Walter in Genetics, Newman referred to eugenics as “human conservation.”

[10] Jean, Harrah and Herman did demonstrate some awareness of the budding modern synthesis, the gene-based (or gene allele-based) theory of evolution, citing Theodosius Dobzhansky, whose 1937 Genetics and the Origin of Species was seminal in our current understanding. But Dobzhansky was not quoted to support Darwin but to suggest his ideas were out of date. Demonstrating they really weren’t all that modern after all, Jean, Harrah and Herman suggested Darwin’s theory of variation had “been superseded,” not by the modern synthesis, which actually re-incorporated Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but by Hugo De Vries’ theory of mutation. And when they said mutation, they didn’t mean gene mutation, they meant macro species-leaping mutation.

[11] Recapitulation was a theory made famous by Ernst Haeckel. It was often illustrated in textbooks by a grid of embryos (see Jean et al. 1944, 410). Displaying Osborn’s influence, Haeckel’s embryos became an increasingly popular feature with textbook authors from the 1930s through the 1950s, and remained a standard feature in the most popular textbooks into the 1960s.The notion of evolution as progressive remains such a common metaphor that dispute still erupts when the idea is challenged, as it was by Stephen Gould in his 1996 Full House.) Where Man and His Biological World veers toward infamy is its use of recapitulation to tell its progressive and ever more finely-tuned story of human progress – from ape to black man to white man to intelligent white man to a future white man bred to wealth and leisure by science.

[12] See E. E. Stanford, Man and the Living World (New York: Macmillan), 1940.

[13] The reconstructions supplied by the AMNH appeared in a majority of the 100 or so biology textbooks published between 1930 and 1952, including Claude Villee’s Biology: The Human Approach (1950). Though tests conducted in 1949 with a new technique that measured fluorine content dated key Piltdown artifacts to no more than 50,000 years before present, the most popular college level textbook of the next three decades, embraced Piltdown. (Amazingly, so invested was the text in its Piltdown-driven story of progress that in his 1957 third edition, published four years after the find was found to be a fake, Villee kept his introductory promotional paragraph on Piltdown, and only tacked on a disclaimer noting the hoax.)

[14] In their 1944 text, in addition to referencing Osborn and other hardcore eugenicists, Jean, Harrah and Herman referenced many of the pioneers in forest, soil, and land conservation, people like wilderness activist (and socialist) Bob Marshall, range ecologist Arthur William Sampson, and the man who coined the term The New Deal, Stuart Chase, a strong advocate of government planning. Chase was a major influence on the key chapter on conservation in Man and His Biological World. However, in 1952, as the politics of the country took a turn to the right during the McCarthy era, all three disappeared, while the text remained unchanged.