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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The Eugenic Zombie in a Graveyard of Textbooks

During the first decades of the twentieth century, WASP elites in the U.S. got themselves into quite a tizzy about sex and race. Metaphysical threats, like the death of “virgin forests,” the “darkening tide” of immigration and the dreaded “white plague” of Tuberculosis, combined with economic threats, like the new permanent income tax, to create a culture open to and fully capable of funding the promotion of public policies and “scientific” solutions that promised to freeze the status quo. Chief among these solutions was the “science” of eugenics.

Eugenics, with some forced sterilization laws here, a few anti-miscegenation laws there, was pitched as a kind of a cure-all for society’s ills, a permanent solution to the problems of alcoholism, pauperism, venereal disease, sexual licentiousness and the general problem of numbers.

March 30, 1913 announcement of the establishment of a Board of Scientific Directors for the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. ©The New York Times.

March 30, 1913 announcement of the establishment of a Board of Scientific Directors for the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor. ©The New York Times.

Several well-publicized studies of female college graduates indicated that fertility among upper class whites had fallen below replacement levels. Democracy can be a drag when one is in the minority.

In the teens, eugenics proved a smart path to patronage. According to Daniel J. Kevles, author of In the In the Name of Eugenics, “the science of human biological improvement provided an avenue to public standing and usefulness.” Charles Davenport’s success in securing a major donation from Mary Harriman, widow of railroad baron E. H. Harriman, to fund the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor demonstrated to other researchers and academics how they too might cash in.

Given the hot enthusiasm for the topic, particularly in the years leading up to World War I, it is no real surprise that biology textbook authors got in on the action. But the fact that they stayed on board for the next six decades, is, well, kind of scary!

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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 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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Classroom Biology: Before and After the Bomb

Biology textbook authors in the first decades of the twentieth century, exploiting cultural anxieties fanned by Madison Grant, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Paul Popenoe and other eugenic theorists, helped undercut democracy and shore up the status quo by “confirming” suspicions that the “strongest” weren’t breeding, the “weakest” weren’t dying and that workers who did not know their genetically-determined place were a threat to the social order.

Into the 1940s, these authors provided an assist to the powers that be by blithely promoting eugenic marriage, forced sterilization of the “feebleminded” and, um, carefully considered career choice as necessary to keep industrial culture “evolving” along its proper progressive path. As Alfred Kinsey (yes, that Alfred Kinsey) counseled in his textbook, “there are really very few of us who have the necessary heredities to make good Presidents of the United States.” (Kinsey 1926, 174; Kinsey 1933 and 1938, 387-88.)

It was all quite reactionary, and generally uncontroversial. That is until World War II, when in a flash it became uncool to casually disrespect democracy, promote authoritarian control or “prove” ones arguments for managed progress based on hierarchical notions of race and class.

Few textbooks made it through unscathed. Continue reading

Discovered! Ella Thea Smith’s First Textbook

Ella Thea Smith graduated in 1920 from the University of Chicago with a degree in Botany. She returned that year to her hometown of Salem, Ohio, where she would teach biology until her retirement in the early 1950s. Evidentially, Smith was so dissatisfied with the biology textbooks then approved for use in her district that she wrote her own. Smith’s typewritten, mimeographed and string bound textbook, Biology: The Science of Life was first used in classrooms in 1932, and was revised by Smith several times over the next few years. The copy offered here was discovered in 2007 misfiled under the title “workbook” at the Salem Historical Society, and is the only known copy of this text.

Smith, Ella Thea. 1932(?). Biology: The Science of Life.
Unpublished. Salem, Ohio: Salem Historical Society.

PDF: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

James Reid, Ella Thea Smith and G. G. Simpson

James M. Reid, an editor at Harcourt Brace from 1924 to 1960, played a crucial role in the history of biology textbooks in the United States.

In his 1969 autobiography, An Adventure in Textbooks, Reid discussed how he helped Ella Thea Smith bring her homemade textbook, complete with its thorough discussion of the theory of evolution, to market in 1938. Reid also described how he connected Smith with paleontologist and modern synthesis architect George Gaylord Simpson. Through Reid, Smith and Simpson significantly influenced each other’s work. Smith reviewed the MS of Simpson’s breakthrough college biologoy textbook, Life, as it was being written in the early 1950s. Reid hoped positive encouragement from Smith would boost Simpson who was struggling with his text. In return, Simpson provided a detailed critique (handwritten on the back of 7 sheets of American Museum of Natural History letterhead) of Smith’s textbook leading to significant improvements between its fourth (1954) and fifth (1959) editions.

In this short excerpt, Reid discusses how “excited” he was to read the early drafts of Smith’s textbook, particularly in how Smith treated the topics of “sex and evolution.”

Ella Thea Smith’s Exploring Biology

smithcomposedElla Thea Smith was the author of the second most popular high school biology textbook in the United States in the 1950s, Exploring Biology. At the height of its popularity it commanded roughly 25% of the market. Exploring Biology was first published in 1938, and was revised in 1943, ’49, ’54, ’59 and ’66. It featured many firsts.

The 1938 edition featured extensive treatments of the topics of human evolution and reproduction. Though her publisher expected the book to do poorly in the south, it was approved for use in the Atlanta (GA) school district as well as many other areas in the country. By the 1960s her textbook was in use in every state.

The 1943 edition featured a comprehensive section on race based on Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish’s “The Races of Mankind,” a pamphlet that was commissioned, produced, but then “notoriously” suppressed by the US Army. Interestingly, Smith’s ’43 text, with its section on race intact, was reprinted under paper cover for use by the US Marines in 1945.

The ’49 edition of Exploring Biology was the first American textbook to feature a discussion of the modern synthesis, reflecting the influence of one of Smith’s readers, paleontologist and synthesis architect George Gaylord Simpson. Smith in turn would serve as a reader, and at one low point, a critical morale booster for Simpson during the time he was writing Life, his breakthrough 1957 college biology textbook.

And between 1959 and 1961, Smith served on the steering committee of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), the group credited for “reintroducing” the topic of evolution in its three 1963 textbooks, the Yellow, Blue, and Green Versions. Ironically, it was a BSCS textbook, the Yellow Version, also published by Harcourt, Brace, and World, which supplanted Smith’s work, though Exploring Biology remained in use in classrooms into the 1970s.

Smith’s impressive achievements, though noted in passing by several scholars (Miller, 1966; Grabiner and Miller, 1974; Skoog, 1979), have never received the attention they deserve. Perhaps this is because Smith’s work does not fit well with a conventional narrative, popular since the mid-1970s, that textbooks published after the Scopes trial of 1925 became progressively “less scientific” as authors and publishers capitulated to complaints by fundamentalist Christians and other conservative cultural forces and progressively eliminated references to evolution and other controversial topics. This narrative suggests that textbooks published between 1926 and 1963 do not reflect then current science, or perhaps more importantly, the social views of scientists.

A thorough discussion of this topic can be found in the article “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks,” published in the 9.08 edition of the Journal of the History of Biology.