Eugenics in High School and College Texts Graphed

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.

Eugenics in High School Graph

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Samuel J. Holmes’ Library

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.

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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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The Aggressive Mutation of Post-War Eugenics

A weird thing happened in the years right after World War II: new college-level biology textbooks, rather than dropping the subject of eugenics, doubled down and began to defend the ideology with more aggressive rhetoric and moments of near-pornographic spectacle.

Biology: And Its Relation to Mankind by Baylor graduate and Stetson University (later Colorado State College/UNC) professor Albert M. Winchester, was published in 1949 – four years after the discovery of Nazi death camps supposedly marked the end of eugenics.

Yet Winchester’s textbook presented one the harshest defenses of eugenics published in the United States during the twentieth century.

And it was no outlier (WARNING: Disturbing photo below the fold). Continue reading

Ellsworth Huntington’s Fantastic Stories of Racial Superiority and Relative Humidity

Ellsworth Huntington was one of the early twentieth century’s most prolific science writers. The author of 28 books, contributor to 29 others and author of more than 240 articles, [1] Huntington was a climatic determinist who held that geography was the “basis for history.” [2] Civilization according to Huntington owed its rise to the weather. He suggested his superior “Teutonic stock” was a natural consequence of the same atmospheric conditions that cause thunderstorms.

But Huntington was worried. He felt he had solid statistical evidence that as his race took on what he thought was its evolutionary obligation to dominate it faced two serious threats: the physically and morally debilitating effects of the tropics and tropical women on WASPs who worked abroad, and the productivity-sapping effects of luxuries like central heating on those who worked at home.

Initially Huntington proposed simple mechanical solutions to these “problems,” like a housing unit that would artificially cycle its internal barometric pressure, and by this action keep his fellow New Englanders charged up wherever they lived. But in the 1920s, with his academic career stalled, Huntington’s ideas began to darken. In 1934 he accepted the presidency of the board of directors of the increasingly nativist American Eugenics Society. By 1935 he was applying his writing talents to the development of that group’s “catechism,” a chilling book titled Tomorrow’s Children.

Huntington was an odd duck, criticized even in his day for possessing an “overheated imagination” that saw patterns in data where none existed and forced facts to fit predetermined conclusions. So why bother studying a man who labored as a lowly Research Associate at an insulting salary at Yale for nearly the entirety of his professional life?

Huntington was a fantasist with little peer support, but his popularity demonstrates how adept he was at framing a folk-science that, to borrow a phrase from Jerome Ravetz, provided America’s ruling class “comfort and reassurance in the face of the crucial uncertainties of the world of experience.” [3] In Huntington we see a metaphor for a nation. Once a jaunty optimist who saw continued cultural domination as a minor engineering challenge, Ellsworth Huntington joined a generation that grew increasingly inclined to promote coercive social policies as it rationalized the rejection of its stumbling personal advances as accumulating proof that the species was in decline.

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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

What Can a Google Ngram Tell Us About Eugenics, Biology and Science Textbooks In General?

I’ve been playing around with the new Google Ngram Viewer, an amazing application that allows searches within the text of the 5 million or so books Google has scanned to date. The Ngram Viewer allows users to enter multiple words or phrases and a date range, and then returns a graph of the use of those words or phrases relative to all the words published during the years specified. Though the tool has been reviewed as something of a time-suck or toy, applied using the very specific language of the social application of biology, I think it shows itself to be a pretty darn cool thing.

The chart above compares the frequency of the use of the word ‘eugenics’ in all books scanned by Google between the years 1905 and 1970 (blue line) with the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in American classrooms based on this author’s study of 80 high school biology textbooks (orange line).

A few fast searches turned up some interesting correlations and relationships: a cross in the popularity of the words ‘eugenics’ and ‘genetics’ in 1934; the rise and decline of eugenic-era terms ‘euthenics,’ ‘dysgenic’ and ‘feeble minded’ and the subsequent post-World War II popularity of the phrase ‘population explosion’; and the relative instances of the phrases ‘Kallikak family,’ ‘Juke family’ and ‘Nam family’, which revealed in a click data scholars might have spent years painstakingly counting.

The ‘eugenics’ curve was particularly interesting to me, as I had published a graph just last February based on the results of a survey that tracked the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in 80 American high school biology textbooks. Frankly, I was somewhat amazed by how closely my graph and Google’s paralleled one another.

Let me offer a couple of caveats before drawing any conclusions.

First, the vertical axis for both graphs is arbitrary. I ‘normalized’ the relative heights. Second, my graph is based on a subjective analysis of importance of eugenics in biology textbooks, while the Google graph is based on a hard word count of all texts published. Still, I think these parallel lines offer some interesting, if only suggestive, insights into a couple of questions asked about biology textbooks.

Assuming its okay to ‘normalize’ the vertical axis, what first jumps out is the obvious shift of 5 to 7 years between the height of popularity of the topic of eugenics in all texts and its popularity in biology textbooks. The second thing that pops is the apparent reluctance by authors to let go of eugenics, even as general interest in the topic began to wane dramatically starting in the late 1930s.

I hesitate to make too much of this, as a similar Ngram built using the word ‘evolution’ did not match my survey of the relative value of that topic in high school biology textbooks quite as neatly.

Still, something, don’t you think?

Karl Sax and The Population Explosion

Another quick post ahead of longer article on pre- and post-WWII population rhetoric. This from Karl Sax, The Population Explosion, the November 1956 entry in the Foreign Policy Association’s well-regarded “Headline Series” (click pic to view).

Sax is a very interesting transitional figure. Though he titled his 1945 article in The Science of Man in the World Crisis, “Population Problems,” his concern even by that late date was not on overpopulation, but on “differential fertility.” In other words, even at war’s end, Sax remained a eugenicist concerned with browning, not breeding, and the geography of his worries were more national than planetary.

However, Sax’s explicitly race-based “populationism” was fast falling out of fashion, as evidenced by articles like “The Concept of Race” by Wilton Marion Krogman, which shared space in The Science of Man in the World Crisis.

Change came in 1948 when two books – Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet and William Vogt’s Road to Survival – introduced (or at least attempted to introduce) a more race-neutral ecologically based populationism. (See Pierre Desrochers and Christine Hoffbauer’s excellent article on this topic.)

But Sax would not be left behind. By 1951 he had adopted Osborn and Vogt’s “population bomb” metaphor, later popularized by Hugh Moore and Paul Ehrlich. In an article for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Sax wrote, “population pressure [is] a far greater threat to world civilization than the atomic bomb.” In 1955 Sax authored Standing Room Only: The Challenge of Overpopulation.” This pamphlet was distilled from that book.

I’ll leave it to you to judge just how “race-neutral” Sax and the new populationism had become. (See for example Sax’s comparison of Puerto Rico and Japan on pages 42 and 43.)

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.

Purity, Pornography and Eugenics in the 1930s (Part II)

Continued from PART I.


In the first science-drunk decades of the twentieth century in the United States, when open discussion of sexuality was severely circumscribed, by custom and law, efforts to understand and control sexuality – all the institution-funded studies of prostitution, journals on birth control, books on eugenics, lectures on proper marital relations, plays and movies about venereal disease, etc. – mutated in meaning to become themselves a kind of erotica.

Ad from the Critic and Guide (1907), a journal edited by William J. Robinson.

The desire to understand and the desire to control were inexorably linked to desire in general. And commercial interests beholden to no ideology other than profit, happily exploited the tension.

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