Race, Art and Evolution

These reconstructions of Java Man (Pithecanthropus), Neanderthal Man and Cro-Magnon Man were created around 1915 by Columbia University physical anthropologist J. H. McGregor for the American Museum of Natural History. They were designed not just to impress visitors with the wonders of science, but also to promote the eugenic theories of the museum’s director, Henry Fairfield Osborn. The images were reproduced in many biology textbooks to support a narrative of racial progress. Pen-wielding students often “repurposed” them to illustrate their own stories.


The sculpted busts of “early man” by J. H. McGregor, and the paintings of Neanderthal flint workers and Cro-Magnon artists by Charles R. Knight, alchemized imaginary beasts of centuries past into icons of progress that carried the imprimatur of science (Moser 1998). But the narrative they supported was conflicted from the start. Created between the years 1915 and 1920 under the guidance of Henry Fairfield Osborn, director of the American Museum of Natural History, the images were designed to both celebrate scientific progress and alert visitors to the museum’s “Hall of the Age of Man” of an impending eugenic crisis. Osborn believed humans had reached an evolutionary peak in the caves of Lascaux, but that racial mixing was threatening to drag the species back (Clark 2008, Rainger 1991).

It was a downer of story, and the visiting public, or at least the white public, happily skipped past it. Instead they saw in Knight and McGregor’s images visual confirmation of their own racial, cultural and scientific superiority.

Knight and McGregor’s artwork, along with copycat images on display in museums across the country, became part our collective consciousness. These images found a welcoming home in most popular biology textbooks published from the 1920s on. But as notions of cultural relativity and racial equality began to seep into the life sciences, textbook authors struggled with how best to reconcile the contradictions so ably, if ironically, illustrated by these images.


Biology textbook authors had three options when contemplating how best to address the conflicting rhetorical demands of the story of human evolution and the story of race: they could ignore both topics; they could favor a sensitive presentation of race at the expense of a progressive presentation of human evolution; or they could retrench and defend a hard line view of both the reality and utility of racial divisions.

The most popular biology textbook of the 1950s gained its status by following the first path.

This painting by Charles R. Knight, known as the Neanderthal Flint Workers, was one of three the artist created under the guidance of Henry Fairfield Osborn for the American Museum of Natural History’s “Hall of the Age of Man.” Osborn had Knight position the central figures in profile to highlight their “primitive” features: stooped posture, sloping foreheads and receding chins. Many of Osborn’s contemporaries, including Margaret Mead, were troubled by the racist character of the imagery. Knight’s painting made its first appearance in an American textbook in the 1947 edition of Modern Biology, but didn’t bloom into full color until that book’s 1960 edition.

In 1947, in a bald-face bid for market share, publisher Henry Holt trimmed Truman J. Moon’s venerable work, Biology for Beginners, to make it broadly acceptable, north and south, notably cutting back on the book’s presentation of the topics of race and evolution. Retitled Modern Biology, Holt’s revised textbook, under the guidance of new author James H. Otto, took full advantage of a post-World War II retreat from “activist” or “subversive” textbooks (Zimmerman 2002). The publisher and author made the book taller and wider, rearranged some content, but invested little in updating its science. Sadly, this proved to be a winning formula; by the mid-1950s, Modern Biology was being hauled about by half the tenth graders in the United States (see related story).

But Holt’s conservatism made it vulnerable.

Through few noticed when Modern Biology’s already meager middle section on human evolution was cut entirely in 1956, that edit proved one too many. When the Soviets launched Sputnik just one year later, the whole mood of the country changed. Overnight, Modern Biology became a symbol of how dangerously behind the United States had fallen in science education. The federal government began to funnel millions of dollars into new curriculum development efforts. And when the topic of human evolution got hot in 1959, due in part to the press generated by Mary and Louis Leakey’s discoveries at Olduvai Gorge and the publicity surrounding the centennial of Darwin’s Origins, Modern Biology looked cooked.

Holt’s response? “Quick, put the cave men back in!”

In 1960, Holt restored and expanded Modern Biology’s section on human evolution, while sadly adding a spoonful racism to help the topic go down. For the first time since the mid-1940s, Holt’s text discussed race directly, identifying 4 “types,” including the Australoid, with its “sloping forehead and prominent brow ridge [that] suggest a relationship to early man” (422). To make the case clear, the text put on gaudy display McGregor’s sculptures and Knight’s paintings (adding the illustration to the right in 1965), images created 40 years before to demonstrate the “natural” progress of human evolution from stooped to erect, from brutal to artistic, and from black to white.

Modern Biology’s presentation of evolution was out of step in 1960. But the text’s authors were not the last to attempt, and fail, to reconcile the conflict between evolutionary progress and racial development. Starting in the 1930s, and continuing through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, authors who used evolution to defend a socially purposeful biology faced similar difficulties.


The first American high school biology textbook to take a serious stab at reconciling the contradictions between a progressive view of organic evolution and a progressive view of human culture was Elsbeth Kroeber and Walter H. Wolff’s breakthrough Adventures with Living Things, published in 1938 by Heath.

Kroeber was the sister of famed cultural anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, Franz Boas’ first student, and his influence shows in her book. Kroeber and Wolff took great pains to communicate to their students that the concept of race was merely a construct, a convenience. As the authors state, “this classification into races is, of course, an artificial one” (752). And yet this claim is embedded in a section devoted to human evolutionary development leading to the text’s discussion of eugenics, titled “Possibilities of Betterment.” The section features McGregor’s reconstructions (though the authors, tellingly, did not include the very white Cro-Magnon bust), reproductions of Knight-inspired murals by John Warner Norton of Neanderthal hunters and Cro-Magnon cave artists, and a photo array by H. L. Shapiro from the American Museum of Natural History that positioned “the Caucasian stock” at the top and “the Negroid stock” at the bottom. This top to bottom ordering, with rare exceptions, was the rule well into the BSCS era.

1938 also saw the publication of Ella Thea Smith’s Exploring Biology, arguably one of the most innovative biology textbooks ever published. It certainly was one of the most impressive solo acts in textbook history. Smith developed her book independent of publisher support while teaching high school biology in Salem, Ohio in the 1930s. Smith would aggressively update and develop Exploring Biology across its first five editions, turning it into the only serious competitor to Modern Biology by the end of the 1950s.

Smith’s biology was radically non-deterministic, certainly relative to her peers. Through she devoted considerable real estate to the topic of organic evolution, more than any biology textbook before and possibly since, and though she did not shy away from discussing human evolution, Smith took great pains to suggest that manipulation of the organism was not a path to progress. The concept of race or racial progress is notably absent from the text.

Was Ella Thea Smith making a statement when she illustrated the “primary stocks” of the human species with an Igorot tribesman in 1943? Just a generation before, 1,100 Igorots were exhibited in a faux village at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, a display secretly funded by the administration of Theodore Roosevelt to promote the “progress” it had brought to the Philippines, partially through widespread slaughter of its natives (Bradley 2009).

In 1943, in response to a general movement within anthropology manifest in publications like Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish’s “The Races of Mankind,” Smith began to address the concept of race more directly. She solved the problem faced by Kroeber and Wolff by decoupling her discussion of race from evolution, placing race at the head of her text (pp. 102 – 112) and evolution at its close. Like Kroeber and Wolff, Smith referenced both H. L. Shapiro and Kroeber’s famous brother, Alfred, but was able to construct a far less conflicted narrative of evolution by taking the “racial proof” off the table.


Smith’s increased emphasis on racial equality correlated with a reduced emphasis on eugenics. Though she had enthusiastically embraced eugenics in the pre-publication version of her textbook (1932), starting in 1938 she began to directly challenge the assumptions of the “science.” From the 1940s on, Smith devoted no more than a few sentences to the topic. The terrible consequences of ideologies of racial superiority were obvious to many even before the extent of Nazi atrocities were fully understood. Other authors of the 1940s responded similarly. Bayles and Burnett in Biology for Better Living (1941), Gruenberg and Bingham in Biology and Man (1944) and Vance and Miller in Biology and You (1946), like Smith, included text that directly countered eugenic assumptions or, as in the case of Gruenberg, dropped the topic entirely.

But not everyone was so quick to abandon eugenics. While Smith pursued general biological appreciation and topic mastery as empowering ends in themselves, many of her competitors in the trade tried to square the circle, to find a solution that would allow them to continue to promote the necessity of reproductive management guided by the trained biologist despite the proximate horror of the application of that idea by its most prominent enthusiasts.
This proved a quixotic task. Regardless of what was written in a text, or how the idea was disclaimed, the photos, drawings and diagrams used to illustrate human evolution betrayed a belief in an arc of progress; a hierarchy of races; a linear history of cultures from the “cave man” to Australian aborigine to Alan Shepard. These illustrations inevitably terminated with a white, male as the “natural” end product (note the letterman in the illustration to the right has “BSCS,” for Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, printed across his chest).

“Retrenchment texts,” rather than building on an anthropology of cultural relativity as pioneered by Columbia’s Franz Boas and his students, like Alfred Kroeber, built instead on an anthropology of neo-racialism as promoted by Harvard’s Earnest Hooton and his students, like Carleton S. Coon.

From Biology and Human Affairs (1941). The middle and rightmost diagrams illustrate what we today call the “multiregional hypothesis.” Carleton Coon promoted the idea that the races were evolving in parallel, progressively, albeit with the “Caucasoid” out ahead, having crossed an imaginary line into modernity some 200,000 years ahead the “Congoid.” Henry Fairfield Osborn promoted a similar idea. Despite solid genetic evidence to the contrary, the idea persists today.

A most remarkable example is John W. Ritchie’s 1941 Biology and Human Affairs, which was unapologetic in positioning the “Caucasian race” as superior and probably quite distant evolutionarily from the “Austaloids, Negroids, and Mongoloids.”

Just as remarkable is Wolfgang F. Pauli’s 1949 The World of Life, a text edited by the future chairman of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), Bentley Glass (see related article), which suggested that programs to encourage greater reproduction by the most intelligent members of society could be modeled on the recently passed G. I. bill of rights (601). Though Pauli was careful to avoid typologically-based racial generalizations, a program such as the one he proposed presupposed that present culture represented a fair natural sorting. Later, Glass, along with Julian Huxley and other “liberal” thinkers, would suggest that pockets of intelligence exist within every racial group, and that the encouragement of higher reproduction rates among the intelligent would expose and allow the development of superior traits no matter what color skin encapsulated those traits.

Wolfgang F. Pauli’s 1949 The World of Life included typical “retrenchment” imagery, including naked “Negroes,” “gnomes” and the “freaks” of the American sideshow, pornography made safe for general consumption through conversion into objects of science. Primitive people were black, “freaks” were women and children.


Ella Thea Smith struggled through the 1950s create a textbook that could compete with Modern Biology without violating her strong commitments to student empowerment and social evolution through education and cooperation. Following Holt’s decision in 1956 to delete most references to human evolution from its 1956 edition, Harcourt, Smith’s publisher, decided to follow suit in 1959. It regretted the decision almost immediately (Reid 1969). Though Smith had by that point incorporated evolution, including a sophisticated presentation of the modern synthesis, into her general discussion of genetics and heredity, the text’s scant mention of Darwin and the complete absence of the trendy topic of “early man” allowed the BSCS to lump her book together with Modern Biology for use as evidence as to why $6,000,000 in federal funds were necessary to update the country’s biology curriculum.

With the Cold War providing both pressure and opportunity, the story of progress from monkeys to men to spacemen proved too compelling a tale not to tell. Scientists, educators and publishers, through the BSCS, would make one last attempt to reconcile race and human evolution.

From the BSCS “green” version, supervised by Marston Bates (1963).

The BSCS did do its job efficiently, and the three textbooks it published in 1963, the “yellow,” “blue” and “green” versions as they are known, are remarkable documents. Though BSCS chairman Bentley Glass encouraged his authors to present race as a construct and all prejudice as unwarranted, narrative demands, unbridled enthusiasm and a desire to restore biology’s social purpose, prevented the group from embracing the concept promoted by Smith and others that race was merely a “superstition” or “myth.”

In the BSCS “yellow” version, supervisors John A. Moore and Bentley Glass himself re-linked organic evolution directly to cultural evolution, relying heavily on “just-so” stories influenced by Carleton S. Coon’s 50’s bestseller The Story of Man to make the transition.

The two other BSCS texts, the “green” and “blue” versions, relied too on images of racial progress to tell the story of scientific progress. The opportunity to pump purpose back into biology after the Nazis had forced a retreat overran any voices of caution, if indeed any were consulted. Though Smith was an original member of the BSCS steering committee, meeting minutes suggest her considerable insight and experience with the topic was never tapped.

This photo series, published at the top of a two-page spread in the BSCS “yellow” version (1963), strongly suggests an upward sweep in the development of old world apes: from black and fat to light and agile. Succeeding pages moved from McGregor’s Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon reconstructions to a comic grouping of African Bushmen to a sterile white Atlas rocket being readied at Cape Canaveral. The text that accompanied these images included Glass’ dire warning: “it is not safe for apes to play with atoms” (686).


The BSCS success drove Harcourt to cease publication of Smith’s Exploring Biology after its 1966 edition. This sixth and final edition, which was produced after Smith had retired, did not discuss race but restored McGregor’s reconstructions, which Smith had dropped in 1949. Modern Biology was rearranged a bit in 1965 in an effort to fend of the BSCS challenge, and more thoroughly revised in 1969. It still pictured human evolution as terminating with a white male.

Berman, Judith C. 1999. “Bad Hair Days in the Paleolithic: Modern (Re)Constructions of the Cave Man.” American Anthropologist 101: 288-304.
Bradley, James. 2009. The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Clark, Constance Areson. 2008. God – or Gorilla: Images of Evolution in the Jazz Age. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
–. 2001. “Evolution for John Doe: Pictures, the Public, and the Scopes Trial Debate.” The Journal of American History 87: 1275-1303.
Moser, Stephanie. 1998. Ancestral Images. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Rainger, Ronald. 1991. An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press.
Reid, James M. 1969. An Adventure in Textbooks. New York: R. R. Bowker Co.
Zimmerman, Jonathan. 2002. Whose America: Culture Wars in the Public Schools. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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