If Kinsey’s Textbook Could Talk …

[Updated for clarity 2010.07.13]

Alfred C. Kinsey’s 1926 An Introduction to Biology was the first American high school biology textbook organized not against authoritarian concepts of progress, control and exploitation, but instead reflective themes of unity, interdependence and conservation. Anticipating concerns that would not enter the greater public consciousness for decades, Kinsey stressed the “ecologic relations of organisms,” and called it “a mistake to test the importance of knowledge by its known, dollars-and-cents application” (v-vi). Where other textbook authors focused on the history of vertebrates culminating with human dominance, Kinsey focused on the behavior of insects culminating with balance in nature.

Still, the author made sure he didn’t come off as some kind of odd-duck bug lover. In his textbook, Kinsey promoted biology, at least as practiced by a taxonomist like himself, as a rugged sport, full of adventure and manly camaraderie, an antidote to the sissifying effects of the lab and the city.

One might suggest Kinsey was compensating for something. And more than a few have. [1]

It is terribly tempting to read between the lines of Kinsey’s enthusiastic prose [2]. But biographers have gone rather too deeply into psychosexual analysis when trying to explain how Kinsey, author of the famous “Kinsey Reports,” transitioned seemingly overnight from a mild mannered collector of gall wasps to a world famous cataloger of orgasms. Scholars have tended to skip past the boring parts, like his textbook, in their rush to examine Kinsey’s later works … and the naughty bits of his personal life. That’s natural. Kinsey’s writings about sex are more interesting to the general reader than his writings about literal birds and bees. But the net effect has been to divide Kisney in two.

In this essay, I build on the recent work of Donna J. Drucker [3] to see what a deep reading of An Introduction to Biology might offer us in understanding both Kinsey the enthusiastic if overreaching entomologist, and Kinsey the groundbreaking if complexly motivated behavioral scientist.

A close examination of the scientific career of Alfred Kinsey reveals his trip from scholar of the genus Cynipidae to a social revolutionary was smoother than commonly supposed. I suggest that Kinsey’s determination to demonstrate the utility of his “pre-synthesis” evolutionary ideas and scientific methodologies motivated his mid-career shift and influenced the topic and research design of his sex studies as much as any desire to challenge social norms.


Alfred C. Kinsey’s An Introduction to Biology, revised as New Introduction to Biology (1933 and 1938), was a successful and unique competitor in a crowded market. First published in 1926, the year after the Scopes trial, Introduction to Biology offered a solid alternative to the prescriptive economic and civic biologies of George W. Hunter, William H. Atwood and Clifton F. Hodge, then all the rage. According to Drucker, Kinsey’s book, over its three editions, sold at least 250,000 copies. Wardell Pomeroy puts the number at 440,000. (Pomeroy, 1982, 52)

Kinsey, heir to the naturalist’s tradition, presented nature not as a resource to manipulate and plunder, but as a physical and intellectual landscape to explore. Through active study, including a healthy dose of field biology, students could discover lessons for living and the laws of life. Unlike textbooks that framed evolutionary history as a ladder leading to the crown of creation, Homo sapiens, Kinsey’s ecological perspective prioritized no species. The text’s non-anthropomorphic perspective allowed Kinsey to address problematic topics like evolution and reproduction by analogy, which made his text acceptable in all quarters of the country, particularly in the American south. [4] But Kinsey’s half-hearted embrace and presentation of Darwinism may have helped as well.

An Introduction to Biology has been widely lauded for its solid science. [5] But even for its era, a decade ahead of the dawn of the modern synthesis, Kinsey’s evolutionism was a little unsteady and confused. Though he expressed no doubt that evolution had occurred, he held out fairly strongly against natural selection as offering anything close to a complete explanation, and he maintained a lingering affection for Lamarckism. In 1926 he wrote, “There are two chief theories on this point (why change occur), and it is certain that neither of them is wholly correct, although each probably contains some truth” (202). Curiously, when forced by evidence to dismiss Lamarckism in 1933 (407), he simultaneously demoted Darwin. Kinsey apparently had his own ideas about the process of evolution. Favoring big jumps, saltations, he promoted a conflation of micro-mutation as demonstrated by Hermann Muller and macro-mutation as advanced by the Dutch biologist, Hugo de Vries (see related article).

In his discussion of eugenics, a standard topic in the era, Kinsey expressed a belief that behavioral variations, including gross behavioral differences between economic classes, were probably as much biologically based as culturally based. Somewhat famously he wrote, “The importance of heredity must never be forgotten. We only fool ourselves when we say that all men are born equal. While we may have equal rights legally, we greatly differ in our biologic equipments. There are really very few of us who have the necessary heredities to make good Presidents of the United States” (174). In his 1937 teachers manual, Methods in Biology, Kinsey made his position even clearer when he wrote, “While the mass of the socially worth-while individuals, and even some leaders have come from the middle classes, the data abundantly prove that most leaders have come from the group which is best equipped in hereditary capacity and environmental training.” (Kinsey, 1937b, 224).

Such thinking, particularly Kinsey’s belief in dramatic mutational jumps, with sub-speciation occurring after through hybridization, put Kinsey slightly out of step with the developing populational view of evolution. Indeed, Kinsey was ridiculed when he attempted to advance his transitional and taxonomy-based evolutionary ideas within the framework of the modern synthesis, triggering what historian Vern Bullough describes as “a kind of midlife crisis.” [6]

But before we get into that, let’s dig a bit deeper into Kinsey’s textbook to see what else it can tell us.

While most early biology textbooks marched through plants and animals phylogenetically, “up” an evolutionary chain from the simple to the complex, Kinsey favored a unit structure based on key sub-disciplines – morphology, physiology, genetics, ecology, distributional biology, etc. He suggested teachers could order and selectively emphasize these units based on “what is of especial interest and concern to the particular community” (1933, xv). Of course, Kinsey, the taxonomist, thought the unit on taxonomy should without question serve as the introduction the subject. And, tellingly, he pushed to have the unit on behavior serve as the conclusion. He wrote, “Certain it is that Behavior, the study of what organisms do, and why they do it, may be made a very exciting climax to a year of biology” (1933, xv).

Though scholars tend to focus on the genetics and ecology sections of Kinsey’s textbook, those being the units most relevant to our current cultural debates, it is perhaps his unit on behavior that is most revealing. In the final eight chapters of An Introduction to Biology, Kinsey discussed the topic by stepping students through the range of behaviors expressed by social wasps and bees, ants and termites, parasites, solitary wasps and bees, and finally, birds. Kinsey offered analogies between insect behavior and human behavior designed to resonate with his audience of high school sophomores. For example, when discussing parasitism, Kinsey wrote, “The poor little rich boy who has always had servants do things for him would find himself in an awkward circumstance if his servants should expire and there were no means in the wide world of ever getting other ones” (474). And Kinsey followed a path common to most biology textbook authors in the 1920s and 30s when discussing habits, good and bad. Higher reasoning, Kinsey suggested, allowed students to channel their “natural instincts” to positive habit formation and useful skills like “skating, swimming, diving, and typewriting” (433). Still, Kinsey did not promote habit formation as prudishly and prescriptively as his more preachy contemporaries. For example, in their 1924 textbook, Biology and Human Welfare, Peabody and Hunt, liberally quoting from William James, pushed the claim that “the great thing in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy” (Peabody, 552). Kinsey on the other hand promoted the loftier claim that, “… if you are able to apply what you have leaned in explaining the affairs of your every-day life, you prove yourself a superior person” (432).

If we want to read into Kinsey’s textbook, that quote would be a better place to start than those that supposedly telegraph the embrace of an alternate sexuality. If Kinsey was driven by his insecurities (and who among us isn’t?), they were likely as intellectual as sexual.

That Kinsey, an entomologist, would close his textbook talking mostly of his passion, insects, is unsurprising. But there is more to it. It is easy to argue that Kinsey climaxed with insects because he believed their study provided a complete laboratory of why. While T. H. Morgan was promoting the near invisible gene as a fundamental unit for evolutionary study, Kinsey seems to have been promoting observable insect variations, labeled and categorized by the taxonomist, as an equally valid data set. From the late 1920s through the 1930s, in a series of articles and a book, Kinsey advanced this idea. It played okay in a pre-synthesis period. But by the mid-30s, it no longer looked modern.

In 1937, Kinsey suffered a humiliating scientific spanking at the hand of George Gaylord Simpson, a paleontologist and key evolutionary theorist. In a polite but lethal critique, Simpson took apart a paper written by Kinsey, point-by-point, using Kinsey’s own words and illustrations against him, and as a foil to forward the paleontologist’s own historical generalizations. [7] It must have been clear then to Kinsey that any further scientific acclaim required finding a new path.


Kinsey closed his chapter on “human hygiene” in his 1926 textbook with the suggestion that students “keep busy,” “not stick to one job so long that you get tired of it,” and to “forget things that can’t be helped.” (1926, 159-60).

The “marriage course,” a non-credit lecture series Kinsey coordinated at Indiana University beginning in 1938, is often positioned as the pivotal event in the taxonomist’s life. But by the time it began, Kisney was probably ready for a change.

It was during the two years he spent shocking IU seniors with frank talk and explicit pictures that Kinsey collected his first sex histories. In counseling sessions with a few curious students, Kinsey discovered that his personality, predilections and the skills he had honed as a taxonomist were suited to the difficult task of soliciting and cataloging very personal information.

But was this a wholly new track for Kinsey?

In her 2008 dissertation, “Creating the Kinsey Reports,” Donna J. Drucker does an excellent job of connecting the two halves of Alfred C. Kinsey, the educator and entomologist of solid professional standing, and the behavioral scientist made world famous through his taxonomic studies of human sexuality. Drucker doesn’t shy away from describing those peculiarities of history and psyche that made the man who he was. But she situates Kinsey firmly within an interdisciplinary scientific tradition, and demonstrates a continuity of method, motivation and style that connect the collector to the college instructor to the explorer of human sexual variation.

As Drucker shows, Kinsey’s interest in the study of human sexuality dated back to well before the marriage course. Starting in 1932, as part of his general interest in the “teaching problem,” Kinsey began to verse himself on the topic. By 1937, he had absorbed all the major studies, including Katherine Bement Davis’ Factors in the Sex Life of Twenty-Two Hundred Women and Robert Latou Dickinson and Lura Beam’s A Thousand Marriages. It seems likely that by the time IU president Herman B. Wells, under faculty and community pressure, pushed Kinsey in 1940 to choose between continuing his lectures and collecting more sex histories, Kinsey saw the choice more as an opportunity than a loss.

Did the controversy surrounding the marriage course get Kinsey fired up? Set him on his latter life mission? Was Kinsey motivated to move into sex studies in part by a personal desire open space within the culture for the acceptance of homosexuality? Perhaps. But it seems Kinsey also simply saw in this new area of collecting a way to recover from the slap administered by Simpson; a way to have a second bite at the apple that was relevance among his peers.


In the introduction to his landmark 1948 study, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Kinsey linked himself rather obviously to the rising stars and key scribes of the modern synthesis, including Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Huxley and Ernst Mayr. He defined the study as a “taxonomic approach,” and used it to pitch taxonomy not as a quaint antique, but as an advance over systematics, which is generally thought of as more modern. He wrote, “Where the systematist used a single individual or a few individuals as the basis of his description and of his understanding of a species, the taxonomist undertakes population sampling on such a scale as may involve hundreds of individuals from each locality, and tens of thousands of individuals from the species as a whole” (Kinsey, 1948, 17). It is interesting to speculate how Kinsey’s curious transitional evolutionary ideas, combined with his faith in the utility of behavioral studies to tease apart evolutionary species and sub-species relationships – suggested both by his textbook and more formal scientific work – conditioned his decision to analyze male sexual behavior across economic classes. It is also interesting to speculate as to whether the criticism he received for this class analysis drove him to abandon it too in his always slightly out of step quest to gain entry into biology’s inner circle.


[1] The current somewhat sensationalized story of the life and career of Alfred C. Kinsey is the product of two recent biographies (see: Jones, 1997; Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan, Linda Wolfe, and Bill Condon, 2004.), a popular Hollywood movie and PBS documentary that focused more on the personality conflicts and sexual politics within the Institute for Sex Research (later the Kinsey Institute) in the 1040s and 50s, than on Kinsey’s rather straightforward career arc from the 1920s on.
[2] There is a temptation, knowing what we know now about Kinsey’s bi-sexuality and long-term cultural impact, to read with a wink passages like, “I have put up with lumberjacks and miners, slept with hermit prospectors whose blankets were undescribable (sic) and unforgettable, met cattlemen and sheep herders … even a few outlaws” (Kinsey, 1926, 47).
[3] I am indebted to Donna J. Drucker, not only for forwarding me her excellent dissertation on Alfred Kinsey (Drucker, 2008) and for her article, “‘A Noble Experiment’ – The Marriage Course at Indiana University, 1938-1940,” but also for the insights and suggestions she offered during the early research on this article. She was most helpful in steering me away from a few more sensationalistic theories and toward better-grounded ideas. For that, I thank her, even if she caused me quite a few long Sundays at the library.
[4] According to Drucker, Kinsey’s An Introduction to Biology was most popular in Florida, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, and California, all states with strong anti-evolutionary movements. The fact that Kinsey’s book was most popular in these states is counter-intuitive, but not difficult to explain. Competing textbooks were as a rule very anthropomorphic. They either told a linear story of evolutionary progress leading up a ladder to humans, or focused on the control of nature, the maximization of resources, the conquest of disease and conscious selective breeding leading to better crops, livestock and people. Inevitably, these textbooks connected “monkeys to men,” a serious no-no among anti-evolutionists. Kinsey focused mostly on insects and plants.
[5] See: Grabiner and Miller, 1974; Skoog, 1979.
[6] Bullough, 1998.
[7] See: Kinsey, 1937a; Simpson, 1937.


Bancroft, John. 1998 “Alfred Kinsey’s work 50 years later.” New Introduction to Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, et al. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Bullough, Vern L. 1998. “Alfred Kinsey and the Kinsey Report: historical overview and lasting contributions.” The Journal of Sex Research.

Drucker, Donna J. 2008, “Creating the Kinsey Reports: Intellectual and Methodological Influences on Alfred Kinsey’s Sex Research, 1919-1953.” Dissertation.

–. 2007. “‘A Noble Experiment’ – The Marriage Course at Indiana University, 1938-1940.” Indiana Magazine of History 103: 3.

Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan, Linda Wolfe, and Bill Condon. 2004. Kinsey: Public and Private. New York: Newmarket Press.

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

Jones, James H. 1997. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. New York: W. W. Norton.

Kinsey, Alfred C, Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin. 1948. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company.

–. 1937a. “Supra-Specific Variation in Nature and in Classification from the View- Point of Zoology.” The American Naturalist 71: 734.

–. 1937b. Methods in Biology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company.

–. 1933, 1938. New Introduction to Biology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company.

–. 1926. An Introduction to Biology. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company.

Peabody, James Edward., Arthur Ellsworth Hunt. 1927. Biology and Human Welfare. New York: The Macmillan Company.

Pomeroy, Wardell Baxter. 1982. Dr. Kinsey and the Institute for Sex Research. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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

Simpson, George Gaylord. 1937. “Supra-Specific Variation in Nature and in Classification from the View- Point of Paleontology.” The American Naturalist 71: 34..


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