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

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.

I’M AN APE MAN

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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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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Marston Bates’ Moment of Zen

Though Rachel Carson is usually credited for raising the public’s awareness of ecology, as Marion Clawson noted, it was Marston Bates’ 1960 book, The Forest and the Sea, not Silent Spring, that made “ecology a household word.”

Though remembered today for his very quotable quotes,” Bates was a serious critic who helped biologists move beyond promotion of the the technological fix.

In a series of books published between 1950 and the early 1960s, Marston Bates attempted to cut through the a thicket of progressionist pretenses and clear the ground for a new philosophy of science.

Dismissive of the popular pseudo-sciences of his day including still popular theories of climatic determinism and eugenic management, and equally skeptical of grand “evolving” ethical systems like Julian Huxley’s “evolutionary humanism,” Bates adopted Aldo Leopold’s idea of an “ecological conscience” as the new metaphysics, and promoted ecological diversity as a first principal.

Unfortunately, Bates, bathed in the apocalyptic writings of William Vogt and Harrison Brown, could not shed the view of human culture as an evolutionary mistake; a dangerous threat to the natural order. Continue reading