Where’d Hugo Go?

[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.

Darwin and De Vries

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.

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Venus, Mars and Marston Bates

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.

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Biology’s Bomb: Graphing “Explosive” Population Growth in Cold War Textbooks

Cartoon reprinted in "The Population Bomb: Is Voluntary Human Sterilization the Answer" (c. 1961), a pamphlet published by Dixie Cup magnate Hugh Moore.

Cartoon reprinted in “The Population Bomb: Is Voluntary Human Sterilization the Answer” (c. 1961), a pamphlet published by Dixie Cup magnate Hugh Moore.

Prior to World War II, America’s protectors thought the country’s innocence could be guarded at its gates. Citizen biologists saw the nation’s border as kind of cartographic diaphragm, not entirely reliable in individual instances, but adequate to the task of containing the pool of potential breeders.

But conflict had led to contact, and contact had led to fear. Like the physicist’s “gadget,” biology’s “bomb” was conjured to protect the national body from penetration.

The “population bomb” was made as real and scary to school children in the 1960s as the H-bombs that drove them under their desks.

True, from the publication of George W. Hunter’s A Civic Biology in 1914 on, students had been taught that America had a “population problem.” But for the first four decades of the twentieth century, that problem wasn’t runaway growth, it was “differential reproduction.” Pre-war biology textbooks in fact warned that total population would level off by 1970 (see graph below), and when it did, the “quality” of the population would begin to decline if present fertility trends continued. The threat wasn’t one of too many babies. The threat was that too many babies were being born to the ‘wrong’ people – the poor, the criminal, the so-called ‘feeble-minded,’ the swarthy and the black.

As E. E. Stanford fussed in his 1940 biology textbook, Man & the Living World, “Families of professional and business classes of supposedly intellectual rating are not replacing themselves, while those of farmers, laborers, and above all, ‘reliefers’ still maintain increase” (722).

But by the war’s end, Stanford’s worry was decidedly out of fashion, a quaint relic, a Zeppelin in a jet age. Continue reading

The Population Bomb v1.0

I’m planning to write a longer piece over the next few days on the transition in biology textbook from a narrative that climaxed with the creeping danger of eugenic decay to one that warned of the imminent cataclysm of a “population bomb.”

But I couldn’t resist publishing these two little pamphlets right away. They’re rather rare and hard to find. Surprising, since something like 1.5 million were printed between 1954 and the mid-1960s.

You can page through either by clicking on its image. Reading them won’t take you long, as both are only 16 pages plus cover.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with Paul Ehrlich’s bestseller, The Population Bomb, first published in 1968. Those of us of a certain age remember it sitting on the well-read suburban rebel’s bookshelf right between The Naked Ape and The Greening of America. (Sorry about all the Wikipedia.) But Ehrlich borrowed his title and thesis (with permission and acknowledgement) from these little books published by something called the Hugh Moore Fund.

Who was Hugh Moore? He was the inventor of the Dixie Cup. By the 1940s he was investing a fair portion of the fortune he made denuding America’s hillsides and sanitizing its bathrooms promoting urgent action on “the population problem.” Though some scholars dismiss Moore as a crank, he was a friend to many powerful people, including William Draper, Jr. and the Bush family. His little 3″ x 6″ pamphlets introduced (or at least popularized) the exponential growth curve, forecasting a world overrun by brown people and communists! By the later 1960s, this scary little graph was shooting up and off the page of the best American high school biology textbooks (the one on the right is from the 1968 BSCS Yellow Version), turning even sex-crazed tenth-graders into rabid ZPGers! (Yeah, more Wikipedia.)

A bit more about more on Moore can be found in Jacqueline Kasun’s The War Against Population (2000). I’m afraid until I get around to writing a proper article, this snip will have to do.

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.

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Haeckel’s Embryos in High School and College

[Revised 2010.02.14]

It is hard to deny that Haeckel’s embryos are an “icon of evolution,” true even if “icon” now evokes Jonathan Wells’ “travesty” of a book (see Matzke). The embryos were reproduced in a majority of high school and college biology textbooks from the mid-1930s through at least the 1960s (See table). Generations of students took away the incorrect but easy to accept and generally cool idea that we pass through a fish-like stage, complete with gill slits, on our way to becoming human.

Creationists, forever seeking advantage, took a 1997 journal article challenging the residual utility of Ernst Haeckel’s iconic embryos (Richardson et al.) and fashioned it into a pointy stick to poke their favorite straw man, the “scientific elite” (Pennisi, 1997; Behe, 1998; Wells, 1999; Freeman, 2001a,b; Ojala, 2004). With fresh charges of “fraud” and “fake,” these anti-evolutionists pricked a few scientists and historians. But the “prickees” fought back, and with context and nuance on their side, made quick work of the critics (Hopwood, 2006; Blackwell, 2007; Richards, 2009). Charges of fraud against Haeckel are as old as the drawings themselves, the defenders noted, just another out of date argument in the creationists’ pitiful quiver of half-truths and rhetorical manipulations.

Thrust. Parry.

But we must be careful: creationist attacks tend to generate simplified and emotional responses that can constrain critical thinking.

Haeckel’s “icon” was and remains a potent and problematic image (see Ken Miller and Joe Levine’s note). Though it is true that Haeckel’s “schematic” illustrations gave way to better representations starting in the late 1940s, biology textbooks continued to present embryos, always vertebrates, side-by-side or in a comparative grid. It’s an arrangement that was designed to communicate Haeckel’s belief that embryonic development and evolutionary history were linked and that evolution was progressive. It is easy to argue that it still does, despite the disclaimers authors usually offer.

What is most curious is that the rise in popularity of Haeckel’s embryos happened just as biologists were distancing themselves from the kind of broad morphologically-based conjecture the “icon” was designed to support. Less than 20% of early American biology textbooks (1907-1932) included all or part of Haeckel’s original grid. But by the 1940s and into the 1950s, upwards of 60% of high school textbooks featured copies or close variations of the 1874 original.

How do we explain this? Continue reading

The Weight of the Moon or How a Single Textbook Skewed Our View of History

In the 1950s and 1960s, Moon, Mann and Otto’s Modern Biology was the most popular high school biology textbook in the country, commanding upwards of 50% of the market. It was also among the most retrograde and out of date.

Scholars have criticized the book for its weak presentation of the topic of evolution. The 1956 edition is the focus of particular scorn. In that edition all references to human evolution were deleted. The publisher of the second most popular textbook, Exploring Biology, followed suit a few years later.

Had the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) not stepped in to stem the slide by developing new textbooks in early 1960s, would evolution have disappeared from American classrooms altogether? Continue reading

The Topic of Evolution in Secondary Schools Revisited

[Updated 2010.02.15]

A new analysis of high school biology textbooks shows that emphasis on the topic of evolution decreased sharply in the decade ahead of the Scopes trial (1925). However, contrary to the conventional scholarly view [1], relative priority of the topic retuned to pre-Scopes levels by 1935 and did not decrease significantly in the decades that followed.

The graph below is based on direct review and analysis (see table) of 80 American high school biology textbooks published between 1907 and 1969.


This graph was generated in Excel by plotting the data gathered through direct examination of 80 high school textbooks published between 1907 and 1969. It shows a clear decline in the priority of the topic of evolution in the years ahead of Scopes trial in 1925, restoration of the topic to earlier levels by 1935, a secondary decline from about 1945 to 1955 and then a rise into the 1960s.

The data strongly suggest that Scopes, or more accurately the general anti-evolution movement of the early 1920s, had an impact on the treatment of the topic of evolution in biology textbooks. However, the impact was temporary. By the later 1930s, the topic had returned to its pre-Scopes status, and remained at least at that status level through the 1960s.

The dip at toward the middle of the 1950s is almost entirely attributable to the popularity of one textbook, Moon’s Modern Biology (see article). It is interesting to compare this chart with a similar chart based on the same data set of the relative treatment of the topic of eugenics.

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Happy Birthday, Origin

As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, I thought I’d take the opportunity to note that though the image of Darwin we share today, that tired but steadfast symbol of rationality and science, dates back only to the 1950s, not 1850s (see Janet Browne’s article in Isis). Further, during most of the 30 years prior to Origin’s centenary, Darwin and his theory of natural selection, to borrow Peter Bowler’s term, were in eclipse.

This neat bit of near-ephemera was among the first attempts to restore some of Darwin’s lost luster. Published in 1956, The Darwin Reader was a “best of” (and somewhat sanitized) collection of the writings of Charles Darwin edited by two professors at the University of Michigan, Philip S. Humphrey and Marston Bates. The editors noted that hardly anybody in the mid-1950s was reading Darwin, professionals included. They thought a good digest would help.

I know nothing of Humphrey. But I know Bates was an amazing man (see related articles). A contemporary of Rachel Carson, Bates helped popularize ecology, was a fantastic natural historian and popular author and was the person most responsible for that radically influential 1960s biology textbook, the BSCS “green version.”

If you don’t know Marston Bates, go online right now, find a used copy of The Forest and the Sea, and buy it!

The Evolution of Textbooks: 1930s Edition

The 1930s were a time of remarkable innovation in the development of high school biology. As the subject grew in popularity to become the standard 10th grade science in the United States, textbook authors and publishers, in a wild race to define the curriculum and carve out market share, introduced new organizational structures and integrating schemes almost annually.

In the years following the 1925 Scopes trial, authors and publishers found that a few simple linguistic tricks were all that were necessary to keep community objections to the adoption of their textbooks to a minimum. Most found that if they substituted a weak synonym for the word ‘evolution’ – racial development, progressive development, development or change – and fudged a bit when discussing the origin of the human species, they could get on to saying whatever it was they wanted to say.

Scopes barely slowed them down.

An analysis of 9 popular textbooks published during the 1930s show that, in general, space devoted to the topic of evolution greatly increased. A couple of these textbooks – Fitzpatrick and Horton’s Biology (1935), Kroeber and Wolff’s Adventures With Living Things (1938) and Smith’s Exploring Biology (1938) – were as “evolutionary” as any published in the twentieth century.

A careful examination suggests that fundamentalist objections to the teaching of evolution had only a minor impact on the structure and content of high school biology textbooks in the 1930s. Looking past the trivial, these books tell a dramatic story of growing discomfort – spurred by a faltering “Dust Bowl” economy at home and the rise of fascist regimes overseas – with a biology-based defense of existing race, class and gender relationships explicit in Progressive era texts, and to biology’s claim that its role was in large part to help “improve,” control and exploit the natural world.

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