Skull reconstructions of Java, Piltdown, Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon, the four “early men” of mid-twentieth evolution, as presented in the 1952 edition of Elements of Biology. Elements was the last American biology textbook to picture Piltdown. The “fossil” was revealed as a fraud in 1953 (and neatly X-ed out by an anonymous student sometime after).
UNVEILED CEREMONIOUSLY AT A 1912 MEETING of the Geological Society of London, Piltdown man – a species inferred from a few skull fragments, a jaw bone, a tooth and an odd collection of associated flora and fauna fossils – became the pride of Great Britain. Here was proof that England, like rivals France and Germany, was once home to prehistoric humans. Better yet, in contrast to the more ‘brutish’ continental Neanderthals, England was home to a more refined cave man, a more cultured ancestor.
First appearance. From Henry Fairfield Osborn’s Men of the Old Stone Age (1915).
Piltdown man was “the missing link,” a creature whose features matched what many expected an early human to look like. And he was a worldwide sensation. Yet, despite his fame, it took almost two decades for Piltdown to became part of the standard story of human evolution as told in biology textbooks.
We might hope that the fact Piltdown was a fake – a collection of filed, stained and strategically broken bits – slowed his acceptance.  But that’s not what happened. Piltdown’s dramatic entry into textbooks starting in the mid-1930s was a reactionary effort by one man, Henry Fairfield Osborn, the director of the American Museum of Natural History. His goal was to infiltrate the debate on human origins and freeze in place his favored ideas of human evolution and the necessity of eugenic management. The success of this strategy is an American tragedy. By flooding the market with compelling visual materials in support of an origin story that, for whites, comfortably bypassed Africa, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, promoted a racialized theory of evolution that would survive Piltdown’s fall from grace in 1953 and taint the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s. Continue reading
Eugenics stopped being a topic of credible scientific inquiry in the United States around the time T. H. Morgan’s lab began publishing Drosophila-based genetic data in 1915, or at the latest, when the Carnegie Foundation began to pull funding from the Eugenic Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor in the later 1930s. But its legacy as part of the biology curriculum was much longer-lived than is commonly assumed.
The charts below track the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in the American biology curriculum based on direct examination of 83 high school biology textbooks and 43 college-level biology textbooks published in the United States between 1904 and 1973. (See database).
Tracing the history of the promotion of eugenics in American biology textbooks reveals several surprises.
First, despite the eugenic horror of World War II, the topic of eugenics remained a fixture of a majority of biology textbooks into the 1960s. Second, while the decade between 1925 and 1935 represented the peak of enthusiasm for eugenics in textbooks, this enthusiasm diminished only gradually over the following 30 years. Third, while a few high school textbook authors began to actively counter eugenic claims starting around 1938, college textbook authors continued to present eugenics without disclaimer. Lastly, no college textbook failed to mention eugenics from the mid-1940s on. Forgive the double negative, but what this means is that after World War II, college-level textbooks featured eugenics more routinely than they had in years prior.
[NOTE: This post has been significantly revised – and improved – based on input from Jim Endersby, author of the Isis article referenced herein. The original post, along with Endersby’s comments and my reply, are attached as an addendum.]
Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries gained global fame in the first decades of the twentieth century for being the guy who finally figured out how evolution worked.
Opposing portraits of Charles Darwin and Hugo de Vries from the 1954 edition of Ella Thea Smith’s popular high school textbook, Exploring Biology.
Of course today we credit Darwin for this discovery, and backdate it to the publication of Origin of Species
in 1859. But for many decades, into the 1930s in fact, Darwin’s theory of natural selection was considered insufficient (see Bowler
, 1992). In the minds of many, De Vries’ idea completed the story of evolution.
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.
Samuel J. Holmes was a respected professor of zoology at Berkeley from 1912 until his death in 1964. He was also, and remained throughout his life, an unapologetic eugenicist.
In fairness, life scientists who came of age in the zeros and teens were all steeped in eugenics, and many became fans and promoters. But Holmes, the compiler of A Bibliography of Eugenics (1924), was particularly enthusiastic.
The image on page 401 of George W. Hunter’s 1907 Elements of Biology is strikingly out of place. It is a Greek bronze flattened to a black silhouette. A woodblock engraving in a textbook otherwise illustrated with halftone photographs. A relic of Renaissance anatomy covered by the soot of the Age of Steam. Yet there it stands, owning the page.
The Nervous Icon (as I’ve come to call the image) was a popular feature in biology textbooks into the 1950s. Picked up, rephotographed and copied with apparently little concern for image quality, artistry, copyright or context. It was treated poorly, just plopped in and barely referenced in the later texts in which it appeared.
But something told me there was a story here. I felt as if the Nervous Icon was a courier carrying a secret message from the past.
It turns out that tracing the history of this image – exploring when it was first cut, how it was reproduced, where it appeared, and why it remained popular even as similar classically styled illustrations were retired – reveals surprising connections between the seemingly disparate topics of printing technology, print piracy, electricity, telegraphy, spirituality, abolition, and that most central of nineteenth century anxieties, masturbation. The Nervous Icon’s secret is that, in its hyper-nakedness, it warned of the dangerous interconnectedness of the body, where stimulation, or over-stimulation, of any one part would cause damage to the entire system.
The “Nervous Icon” has mesmerized me for nearly three years (see Parts I, II and III).
I first spotted the image in the early textbooks of George W. Hunter, including A Civic Biology (1914), famous as the central exhibit in the Scopes trial. It stood out because it gave off such a curiously anachronistic aura in Hunter’s otherwise proudly “modern” works. Once struck, I started seeing the thing everywhere. I found variations in at least eight competing twentieth century American high school textbooks. And moving back in time, I uncovered dozens of instances published in the century prior.
Above are variations of “The Nervous Icon,” an illustration that was copied, retouched, redrawn and reproduced in more than three dozen anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between 1845 and 1956. See the Nervous Icon database. Images 1, 2 and 3 digitized by Google. 4 and 5 scanned from the author’s personal collection.
“The Nervous Icon” is my name for an illustration of the human nervous system that found its way into dozens of anatomy, physiology and biology textbooks published between the mid-1800s and the mid-1900s. I began tracing its history in The Nervous Icon – Part I, where I touched on the issues of artistry, copyright, and mechanical reproduction in science textbooks. I followed up a month later in The Nervous Icon – Part II, where I went “over my head” into the history of encyclopedias and the tension caused by the conflict between the assumption that cultural artifacts were the property of the dominating imperialist power and the imperatives of the emerging global marketplace.
Well, I just spent a fair portion of Thanksgiving morning updating the Textbook History database of Eugenics in College Biology Textbooks. In addition to correcting more than a few embarrassing misspellings and broken links, I’ve added commentary on two later editions of Biology by Claude A. Villee (1967 and 1972), the second edition of General Biology by Gairdner B. Moment (1950), and the first edition of Biology: A Full Spectrum (1973) by Gairdner B. Moment and Helen M. Habermann.
It remains striking how unwilling Harvard professor Villee was to give up on eugenics. Moment too, but Villee far more so. In the 1972 edition of Biology the author comes off as downright cranky about having to abandon the term. But though Villee finally dropped eugenics from the index and text, he didn’t abandon the idea entirely. Where the discussion of eugenics had been in his 1967 text, at the close of the chapter titled “Inheritance in Man,” the author simply substituted two modern sounding but not really so modern sub-sections – “Factors Changing Gene Frequencies: Differential Reproduction” and “Evolution: The Failure to Maintain Genetic Equilibrium” (718). Forget isolation or drift, for Villee, evolution, for better or for worse, was driven by that boogeyman of eugenics, “differential reproduction.” His citing of Earnest. A. Hooton, Carleton. S. Coon (786) and Franz Weidenreich (789) betrayed a continued affection for the concept of “racial development.”
For additional discussion on Villee, see The Eugenic Zombie in a Graveyard of Textbooks, specifically the article’s last section.
MAD magazine was a rare treat when I was a young teenager, a little expensive and difficult to acquire on a regular basis, but a standard newsstand pickup ahead of road trips and summer weeks away. At the time, the early 1970s, MAD was hitting its highest circulation numbers. Yet its humor always felt weirdly out of step, recycled, even a bit reactionary. Of course that’s partially why I liked it. It was creepy anthropology, a moist record of the guilty id of my older siblings and younger aunts and uncles, subversive if a little toothless.
The magazine had its culturally relevant bits, like Don Martin’s ononmonpidic explosions and Sergio Aragones’ slapstick marginals, but on balance MAD was weighed down by filler of a sensibility that went out with Eisenhower.
Then there was Alfred E. Neuman.