Dec 16, 2012

Most of us think of conservation and ecology as more or less the same thing, with conservation the first step toward the restoration of an ecologically balanced state of nature. But through the first half of the twentieth century, the two words signified quite different things.

In the teens, 20s and 30s, biology textbook authors positioned ecology as a minor sub-discipline of their field, and characterized it unflatteringly as a descriptive, womanly endeavor. As Edward Loranus Rice states in An Introduction to Biology (1935), “it would not be wide of the mark to define ecology as the domestic science, or home economics, of animals and plants” (p. 4).

Conservation on the other hand was progressive, manly.

True, conservationists thought humans had whacked things out of balance. However, during the early part of the century, Mother Nature was not seen as a woman to be feared, but as a girl whose work could be improved. Pioneering textbook author George W. Hunter summed up the ethos in Problems in Biology (1931) when he wrote, “Man has come to disturb the balance of life in many ways [but] on the whole, his influence is beneficial” (pp. 289-90).

Hunter subscribed to what historian Samuel P. Hays famously labeled The Gospel of Efficiency. According to Hays, the Gospel’s acolytes believed the impact of industry on the environment could be mitigated as long as scientists and technocrats (verses self-interested voters and rapacious profit-seekers) were allowed to set the conditions of exploitation.

The only early textbook author to make a big deal of ecology was Alfred Kinsey, the biologist later famous for his studies of human sexuality. In his An Introduction to Biology (1926), Kinsey featured ecology as one of 7 co-equal units. (See “If Kinsey’s Textbook Could Talk …”) Decades before such talk was fashionable, Kinsey suggested that ecology’s lessons of interdependence were both obvious and key to biological insight. He wrote, “It requires no great stretch of the imagination to think of everything in the universe as being related to everything else … No creature exists independently” (p. 227).

But Kinsey’s textbook was an outlier. While many, like the authors of Man and His Biological World (1944), positioned “man” as “the archdisturber of the balance of nature” (Jean et al. p. 322), such statements were not intended to imply that humans needed to stop what they were doing, but instead were made to build the case for professional management.

It wasn’t until the American Dust Bowl droughts, followed by a series of culture shaking technological advances spurred by World War II, notably the near simultaneous development of the airplane, the atomic bomb and antibiotics, that the Progressive era conceits came under sustained assault.

Though 1940s textbooks are filled with photos of terraced fields and erosion monitoring equipment, faith in scientific management faltered as the concept of a country inviolate gave way. How could any group, no matter how smart and well trained, manage the environment when it expanded conceptually from the American southwest and its surrounding territories to the entire globe?

This opened a niche for ecologists.

In his 1942 textbook, General Biology for College, Gardiner B. Moment became one of the first textbook authors to demand ecology be treated as “a rigorous science with a dignity commensurate with its importance” (p. 173). Road_To_SurvivalIn his 1944 Biology and Human Life, Benjamin Gruenberg, once a happy follower of the Gospel, recanted, characterizing much of what was wrong with the world as the responsibility of a “restless, roving, ruthless species – man” (p. 575). And then in 1948, two pioneering eco-catastrophes hit the best-sellers list, the somewhat genteel Our Plundered Planet by Fairfield Osborn, and the arguably more influential The Road to Survival by William Vogt.

The gradual shift away from an archetype-focused conservationist ideology can be traced through the revised editions of several popular biology textbooks, most notably in the 1957 editions of Biology by Claude Villee (see related article) and Biology and its Relation to Mankind by A. M. Winchester (see related article). But the diversity-focused ecology to which we now commonly subscribe didn’t break through until the early 1960s when an outsider zoologist named Marston Bates managed to all but single-handedly overwrite 50 years of tradition.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1906, Marston Bates moved with his family to a farm in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1916. An only child reared in near isolation, Bates, like Darwin before him, developed a strong interest in the natural world, particularly insects. After earning his B.S. from the University of Florida in 1927, Bates worked for three years as an entomologist on behalf of the United Fruit Company in Honduras and Guatemala. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1934. From 1937 to 1948, Bates was a staff member of the International Health Division of the Rockefeller Foundation, where he first served in Albania, and later in Columbian, where he studied mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases. Upon his return to the United States in 1948 Bates did postdoctoral work at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene. He became a professor of biology at the University of Michigan in 1952, and worked there until his retirement in 1972.

Bates’ popular writing is often compared to Rachel Carson’s. (See “Marston Bates’ Moment of Zen” and “The Lost Lessons of Silent Spring”.) Indeed, the two authors paralleled each other in topic and tone in their respective books through the 1950s and early 1960s. And both worked decidedly outside the scientific mainstream. As E. O. Wilson writes in the afterward to the fortieth anniversary edition of Silent Spring, “ecology was near the bottom of the scientific disciplines in prestige and support; few Americans even knew what the word meant.” Though Carson is usually credited for raising the public’s awareness of ecology, as Marion Clawston notes, it was Bates’ 1960 book, The Forest and the Sea, not Silent Spring, that made “ecology a household word.”

In 1961 Bates was appointed by Bentley Glass to direct the development of one of three new high school biology textbooks for Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), a Cold War-propelled program designed to close the “science gap” between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. A quick and confident writer, in just one year Bates managed to plant his “ecological approach” to biology so deeply into the pages of what would become the BSCS Green Version that no one, including BSCS chairman Bentley Glass and steering committee member Hermann Muller, could uproot it. Though both tried.

Hermann Muller in particular was not impressed by Bates’ work, or the work of the other two BSCS textbook directors for that matter. Muller, who had won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the mutagenic effects of X-rays, believed the federally funded BSCS, free as it was of commercial constraints and school board interference, had an obligation to restore to the curriculum an unapologetic view of the biologist as a muscular manager of genetic health and human social progress. He complained bitterly to his fellow BSCS board members and its chairman Bentley Glass that none of the three textbooks the group had under development emphasized evolution adequately.

Glass conceded the point, but counseled that Bates’ text was too far along to “fix.” After briefly considering the development of a fourth textbook, he suggested the best course of action would be to revise the other two textbooks in progress, the BSCS Blue Version and the BSCS Yellow Version.

So the BSCS Green Version went to press in 1963 largely as Bates’ originally intended.

The significance of Bates’ achievement is hard to overstate.


Bates, Marston; Kolb, Haven C (Supervisors). 1963. BSCS: Green Version, aka Biological Science: An Ecological Approach. New York: Rand McNally.

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

Gruenberg, Benjamin c. 1925. Biology and Human Life. Boston: Ginn; 1944. Biology and Man. Boston: Ginn.

Hunter, George W. 1914. Civic Biology; 1926. New Civic Biology; 1931. Problems in Biology. New York: American Book Company.

Jean, Frank Covert; Harrah, Ezra Clarence; Herman, Fred Louis. 1944 (1933) Man and His Biological World. Boston: Ginn.

Kinsey, Alfred. 1926. An Introduction to Biology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company.

Ladouceur, Ronald P. 2008. “‘All With Theories To Sell:’ Carleton S. Coon, Bentley Glass, Marston Bates, and the struggle by life scientists in the United States to construct a social mission after World War II.’ Master’s Thesis.

Rice, Edward Loranus. 1935. An Introduction to Biology. Boston: Ginn.

Moment, Gairdner. 1942. General Biology for College. New York: D. Appleton-Century.

Villee, Claude. 1950, 1957. Biology (The Human Approach). Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders.

Winchester, A. M. 1949, 1957. Biology And Its Relation to Mankind. New York: D. Van Norstrand Company.


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