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Trying BiologyThe Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools$

Adam R. Shapiro

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780226029450

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: September 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226029597.001.0001

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Biology Textbooks in an Era of Science and Religion

Biology Textbooks in an Era of Science and Religion

(p.135) Chapter Seven Biology Textbooks in an Era of Science and Religion
Trying Biology

Adam R. Shapiro

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that the physical traces of authorship and authorization not only gave some indication of how a textbook should be consumed by its intended audiences, but also gave an incomplete view of the parties involved in creating the text. Tennessee’s state label only indicated that the book was accepted by the state, and did not include the extent to which state standards, outside groups of readers, and the input of state adoption boards influenced the writing of the book. Numerous parties outside the New Civic Biology’s author and editors had unseen influences in the writing of the textbook. High school teachers had also made suggestions on how the book should be revised.

Keywords:   state standards, authorship, authorization, new civic biology, tennessee

As the case of the New Civic Biology shows, the making of a textbook is often a complicated process. Even though one man’s name–that of George W. Hunter–appears on the book’s spine, many other people were involved in its creation. Readers of a book would likely assume that the object before them had been subjected to editing, and, while they might not know that George Benton, W. W. Livengood, and Stiles Torrance were the specific men involved, they would not be surprised to know that editors played a role in creating the text. The name of the publisher on the spine implies as much–that the American Book Company (ABC), which had a reputation for producing books of reliable quality, had vetted the words of George Hunter and adjusted them accordingly prior to publication. To look no further than the cover of the book already gives accounts of two sources of authority by which the New Civic Biology could be seen as reliable. Those two sources also indicate the collaborative nature of the process that produced the book. A book-consuming audience in the present-day United States would expect to find information about both author and publisher on any printed book.

But the school textbook contains other imprimaturs besides those that typical trade books contain. One of these is the mark of official approval by the state or local school district that has adopted the book. In cases where textbooks are loaned to students, these are labels indicating ownership– that a book is the “property of” a school. The school or state’s willingness to purchase a book for students communicates to its readers approval of the book and its content. Even where a textbook is adopted but not purchased, there are indications that the book has been authorized. In 1920s Tennessee, state-adopted schoolbooks had a label affixed to the inside cover. Primarily, (p.136) this was to control prices. The state label indicated the fixed prices of books to prevent distributors from overcharging (see fig. 6). Long before school boards were using stickers inside biology textbooks warning of evolutionary content,1 the practice of physically attaching a label to textbooks was standard.

Biology Textbooks in an Era of Science and Religion

figure 6 Sticker inside copies of Hunter’s New Civic Biology sold in Tennessee.

The physical traces of authorship and authorization give some indication of how a textbook is likely to be read and consumed by its audiences, but they give an incomplete view of the parties involved in creating the text. The state label indicates only that the book has been accepted by the state; it does not indicate the extent to which state standards, outside groups of readers, and the input of state adoption boards influence the writing of a book. Several parties who were neither the book’s author nor its editors had invisible hands in the writing of the New Civic Biology. The high school teachers in New York and Chicago who commented on the manuscript signaled things that should be revised and made other suggestions. The Peabody College of Education biology professor Jessie M. Shaver and Kentucky superintendent of public instruction McHenry Rhoads did much to rewrite the book. Arguably, the overall book–not just its treatment of evolution–more closely resembled Rhoads’s view of biology pedagogy than Hunter’s.

The most significant difference in the New Civic Biology was that it avoided the word evolution. It was not the only textbook to do so, yet nearly (p.137) all those that did still taught evolutionary concepts in one form or another. This does not seem to have been the result of any collusion among the rival publishers or among the authors themselves. Nonetheless, this technique came to be seen as a legitimate and successful response to the antievolutionary culture that prevailed after the Scopes trial. The way this came about illustrates the extent to which audiences can create the texts they consume. These biology textbooks were produced along with certain ways of reading them that allowed them to be a response to the Scopes trial. Even in some cases where the textbook was published shortly before the trial, the way in which these books were able to be sold and read evolved in such a way that they too could be seen as responses to the trial.

The Origins of the Anti – “Evolution” Movement

A month before the Scopes trial began, an editorial appeared in the Peabody Journal of Education. The Nashville-based school of education that W. T. H. Howe called “the Columbia of the South” had become even more influential with the simultaneous rise of public schooling in southern states and the founding of its own in-house publication in 1923.2 The journal helped collect and disseminate information about issues in education of particular importance to southern educators. This editorial, “The Teacher and the Truth,” lambasted the antievolution law that had just been enacted just two miles from Peabody’s campus: “George Peabody College of Teachers and Vanderbilt University are not directly affected by the legislation, because they are not state-supported institutions; but both are deeply concerned, nevertheless, for their graduates who teach within Tennessee will have to contend with this mischievous and bigoted handicap to their highest service towards public intelligence.”3

The editorial not only condemned the antievolution law; it presented an interpretation of the law that set evolution against specific understandings of particular Bible passages: “The edicts are directed against the teachers of biology, in whose classes the question of the origin and development of man’s body naturally arises. ’So God created man in his own image’ (Gen. 1: 27), is the key argument, the slogan of the opponents of evolutionary theory. And yet it is positively revolting to accept the insistent claims of literalists as to a bodily resemblance between man and God, and think of a Deity with a stomach, a liver, an appendix–out of reverence we go no further.” As the editors of the Peabody Journal posed it, opposition to evolution was rooted in the absurd, “insistent claims of literalists.” These literalists were defending, not the Bible, but “their private interpretations of it, in which they have so (p.138) much confidence that they would foist them upon every one else.”4 Like other evolution supporters, the editors equated literalism with an interpretation of the Genesis account of creation. Invoking Andrew Dickson White, they claimed that history will eventually validate science, as it always has in its slow unfolding warfare with theology.

This editorial is typical of much of the anti-antievolutionary rhetoric before the Scopes trial. Were it not for the Peabody Journal’s particular audience of schoolteachers and other education experts (especially in the South), the editorial might be unremarkable among reactions to the antievolution law. However, it also suggests a likely scenario if the law were to be enforced: “Teachers would evade the law by teaching guardedly the facts, but never using the forbidden word, ’evolution,’ or alluding to a monkey (in which case very possibly not one critic in a thousand could identify the forbidden hypothesis).”5

The idea that one could circumvent antievolutionary sentiment by simply avoiding the word evolution goes back to at least 1923, when Ginn and Company editor in chief Charles Thurber told William Jennings Bryan about his company’s experience with antievolutionism:

In one instance where one of our books had been barred from a certain institution we were informed that if we would merely cut out the word “evolution” the book would be reinstated. The statements of the book would remain just as they had been before except that for evolution we should substitute some other term which might mean as nearly as possible the same thing but which would not be known to the public and therefore was not objectionable.

Naturally we want to sell our books, but we do not like to resort to such a trick or subterfuge as this to get business, nor do we feel that we should entirely suppress every reference to a philosophical and scientific concept which, whether we approve it or disapprove of it, has affected the life and thought of two generations.

Thurber noted: “It does seem to be true that to a great many people the mere use of the word ’evolution’ is enough to stamp the one who uses the word as an atheist.”6

In his reply, Bryan did not wholeheartedly endorse the removal of the word evolution as either necessary or sufficient to allay the concerns of antievolutionists. He did note: “The publishing house that recognizes the revolt against evolution will find it much easier to reach the authorities, especially in the South where a much larger percentage of the people are Christians.” He also confirmed Thurber’s understanding that (for Bryan at least) teaching (p.139) evolution as a hypothesis was acceptable, “that it is the teaching of it as a fact that is objected to.” He offered Thurber advice on how to create books that could be marketed in this controversial environment: “First, by eliminating objectionable phraseology from the text books. It would take a great deal in the way of elimination and addition to make it clear that evolution is presented only as an hypothesis, unproven, but an hypothesis that educated people should understand. If such a book is used as a textbook by teachers who do not themselves believe in evolution, the facts upon which evolutionists base their belief would be harmless, because it is not the facts that do harm but the conclusions based upon the facts–forced conclusions unsupported by fact.”7 Bryan did not recommend the simple subterfuge of removing the word evolution, but he noted that explaining evolution as a hypothesis and not as a fact would be very difficult.

Ginn took no immediate action, even when it had the opportunity to do so. In 1924, it released an updated edition of Gruenberg’s Elementary Biology. The new edition corrected a few errors and updated some necessary details. To save money, care was taken to replace excised text with text of the same length and format. That way, subsequent pages in a chapter could be printed using the plates from the 1919 edition, and there would be no missing section or page numbers. The time and expense of creating new electrotype plates was a frequent concern for publishers.

But none of the changes in the 1924 revised Elementary Biology altered the book’s discussion of evolution. Even when a new plate was already being made for a page discussing evolution–when it would have been effectively free to make a change–there was no attempt to downplay or alter the discussion.8 It would have been difficult to remove evolution from the Elementary Biology; to do so would have required changing an entire unit of the textbook. By the time Thurber wrote to Bryan, Gruenberg’s new text-book was already being planned.

A Community of Revisions

It was not until Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life was being completed that Ginn acted on Bryan’s advice. The book was published just as Tennessee was passing its antievolution law. The word evolution does not appear at all in this book, yet one need turn only a few pages to find pictures of ancient plant and animal fossils with captions describing them as millions of years old. In the last unit of the book, along with chapters devoted to eugenics Gruenberg references the ongoing evolution of humanity, writing: “By (p.140) saving lives, or postponing deaths, civilization interferes with natural selection.”9 There is less discussion of species change, heredity, or variation than the Elementary Biology contained; most of the discussion that is included is focused on applications of heredity to improve the human species or the plants and animals it uses. Unlike the way in which the New Civic Biology was finally revised, Thurber and Gruenberg seem to have worked together from the beginning in crafting a book that avoided “objectionable phraseology.” Though not as explicitly evolutionary, the Biology and Human Life nonetheless presents as facts the antiquity of life on earth. It was added to the list of adopted books in Tennessee in June.

The textbook Tennessee adopted just before the trial, the Macmillan-published Biology and Human Welfare by Peabody and Hunt, mentioned the word evolution only in its preface, stating that the subject was not taught in the book. Walter White, the county school superintendent who testified at the trial that Scopes taught evolution, said of this new textbook: “It conforms with the law. You won’t find any evolutionary tree in this book.”10

Despite the disclaimer in the preface and White’s reassurances, only a few pages into the book there is a laudatory description of Charles Darwin. A caption underneath his portrait called him “a painstaking investigator of problems bearing on the theory of the origin of living forms.” The main text of the book states that it is “Darwin to whom the world owes a great part of its modern progress in biology.” He is also credited as “publishing one of the epoch-making books of all time, On the Origin of Species.”11

Gruenberg and Ginn had the benefit of making a new book in Biology and Human Life. Gruenberg intended this book to serve, not as a revision of the Elementary Biology, but as a tenth-grade biology as part of a two-market approach to the topic. (Several years later, it became clear that Ginn’s sales offices were not marketing the books this way, and the Elementary Biology was virtually abandoned.) By starting from scratch, it was easier to do more than merely avoid mention of the word evolution. Some other books published in the year or so before the Scopes trial had already taken some steps to avoid the objections of antievolutionists, but the trial changed the criteria by which such books were being judged. Publishers could either wait until enough time had passed to warrant a full revision of a biology textbook, in which case they could, like Ginn, shift the overall focus away from evolution, or they could remove the obvious: the word evolution, discussion of Darwin, and depictions of evolutionary trees.

Macmillan’s book had just been adopted in Tennessee, and the publisher made no immediate effort to alter the Biology and Human Welfare after the (p.141) Scopes trial. The ABC had considered making some quick changes to the Civic Biology but ultimately decided to have George Hunter focus on the manuscript of the New Civic Biology. Other publishers were in a more difficult situation. They could not abandon textbooks so recently published. Too much time and money had been spent in developing and promoting them to abandon them before their full lifetime had been spent. To have an author make a revision, even to make substantial changes in the editorial rooms, would also require a considerable investment. With new sales constantly looming, many publishers opted for the less thorough, less expensive, and less laborious revision.

Edward Southworth’s Iroquois Publishing Company exemplified this approach with its biology textbook. The former Ginn salesman and textbook coauthor published his first biology textbook in 1924, Arthur Clement’s Living Things: An Elementary Biology. The next year, Southworth was in Tennessee to pitch Living Things to the state textbook commission, and again he made a focused pitch. But it was not adopted in June 1925.

Perhaps anticipating the antievolution criticism, the 1924 edition of Living Things did not include much mention of evolution at all (though it included eugenics and sections on “the struggle for existence,” “natural selection,” and the “survival of the fittest”). The only place where the word evolution occurred was in the final chapter, which comprised a series of biographical sketches of famous biologists and included several paragraphs about Darwin. The discussion of evolution (shown in fig. 7a) did not try to insist on the theory’s truth but rather took an almost apologetic tone: “Contrary to popular opinion, Darwin did not originate the idea of evolution. He only applied a very old doctrine and endeavored to prove that natural selection was the means by which evolution is effected.”12 A question at the end of the chapter and an entry in the index were the only other places where the word evolution occurred.

Southworth failed to win the book’s adoption in Tennessee in June, but after the Scopes trial Iroquois made a quick and economical revision. Out of nearly five hundred pages, the revised Living Things required only five new plates. One was the copyright page, changed to emphasize to potential markets that the book was new. The other four changes consisted of the two pages on which the biographical summary of Darwin was found (see fig. 7b), the page of questions at the end of that chapter (one of which had included the word evolution), and the page of the index that had contained the entry for evolution (see fig. 8).

Considerable effort was made to ensure that the new paragraph on Darwin ended exactly two lines into page 456 so that plates of the subsequent (p.142) pages of the chapter would not have to be remade. References to the Origin of Species and the word evolution were cut. Something needed to be inserted in their stead. That something turned out to be a lengthy list of books that Darwin wrote, not including the Origin of Species, the Descent of Man, and the Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals. The paragraph is almost entirely filler, using drawn-out phrasing to say very little about Darwin’s contributions to science.

Biology Textbooks in an Era of Science and Religion

figure 7 Pages 455 and 456 of the 1924 and 1925 editions of Clement’s Living Things (figs. 7a and 7b, respectively). In the post-Scopes version, care was taken to ensure that the replaced text about Charles Darwin took up the same amount of space so that plates for the rest of the chapter would not need to be made.

(p.143) The 1925 Living Things was fixated on removing the word evolution. Other evolutionary content (such as there was) was retained. But the decision to simply remove the word evolution was made, probably not because Southworth knew that this was what antievolutionists wanted, but because any more comprehensive changes would have taken too much time and money. Regardless, Southworth’s revision was a success. In October, the Tennessee state textbook commission added Living Things to the state list, joining Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life and Peabody and Hunt’s Biology and Human Welfare.13

Biology Textbooks in an Era of Science and Religion

figure 8 In the 1925 edition of Living Things (fig. 8b), the entry for evolution has been removed (cf. fig. 8a, showing the 1924 edition). Additional space between “E” and “F” entries allows for the page to end with the same term so that the rest of the index pages did not need to be altered.

(p.144) (p.145) One might come away from a reading of the revised Living Things with an impression that Darwin’s principal importance to the history of biology was his groundbreaking “interesting essay” on earthworms. This bizarre image was reinforced by Allyn and Bacon’s 1929 New General Biology by Smallwood, Reveley, and Bailey. The book was a revision and expansion of those authors’ 1924 New Biology. Already in 1924 the New Biology used the word (p.146) evolution only in two biographical insets–of Henry Fairfield Osborn and Charles Darwin. The biographical insets–non paginated and interspersed throughout the book–were reused in the 1929 revision. The lack of page numbers meant that the plates could be recycled for use in several textbooks, and many of them had also been used in earlier biology textbooks by the same authors. In 1924, Darwin’s biography was placed in a chapter on natural selection. In 1929, it was placed after a section entitled “Earthworm and Plant Life.”14 In an apparent attempt to reinforce biology’s spiritual nature, that same chapter on earthworms includes a quotation from Longfellow’s poem “The Fiftieth Birthday of Agassiz”:

  • “Come wander with me,” she said,
  • “Into regions yet untrod,
  • And read what is still unread
  • In the manuscripts of God.”15

Louis Agassiz (1807–73), the Harvard zoologist lauded by the poet, was one of the last major scientists in America to die unconvinced of Darwin’s theory.

Like Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life, the New General Biology contained substantial discussion of evolution, even though it did not use the word. The chapter on reptiles begins with a lengthy discussion of dinosaurs and the fossil evidence for their antiquity. The chapter on mammals (“the Rulers of the Earth”) discussed the adaptations of homologous structures. The book covers eugenics. It even discusses the origins of new plants and animals quite explicitly:

Biologists believe that these several kinds have been derived or developed in nature. We are sure that you recall that animals produce more eggs than ever reach maturity and that the number of seeds on one plant is often very great. When these eggs and seeds begin to grow, there is competition between them for food and a place to live. Those that can grow a little faster or are more hardy or more adaptable live; the rest fail to mature or die in infancy. Darwin used the expression “struggle for existence” to describe his conception of this competition with environment and with other animals and plants; Wallace, another English biologist, preferred to use the expression “survival of the fittest” to explain this same condition.16

No matter what Darwin or Wallace called it, Allyn and Bacon’s editors preferred not to use the word evolution. The firm’s 1916 biology textbook (by the same authors as the New General Biology) explicitly taught the “theory of evolution.”17 Like Ginn, Allyn and Bacon took deliberate steps to respond to antievolutionism.

(p.147) In the cases of Ginn’s Biology and Human Life and Macmillan’s Biology and Human Welfare, the decision to avoid the term evolution was decided very early in the process of writing the manuscript, allowing much of the evolutionary content to be included without “objectionable phraseology.” With Iroquois’s Living Things, the changes were made ex post facto and were constrained by the economics of printmaking.

The most awkward situations occurred when a decision to change the text in response to antievolutionism came late in the production of a new book but before its publication. The ABC’s and Hunter’s creation of the New Civic Biology suffered from this. William H. Atwood’s 1927 Biology seems to have been revised under similar circumstances. The book reused much of his 1922 Civic and Economic Biology, which had devoted several chapters to evolution. Despite explicit discussion of the common ancestry of different species, however, there was no mention of evolution at all in the 1927 book. The word did not appear anywhere in the main text or the index. However, it did occur in the glossary:

Evolution (Lat. E + volvere, to roll) (ev o lû´ shun): The progress of life by descent from the simple to the complex.18

The 1922 textbook had no glossary. The glossary was made from scratch for the 1927 Biology. At one time, apparently, the book’s manuscript contained the word evolution. Somewhere in the editing process–perhaps after a reading of the New Civic Biology or other competing books–a decision was reached to remove all mention of it. Someone–presumably an editor–over-looked the glossary when the removal was carried out. This suggests that the decision to remove the word both came late in the production process and was hastily executed. The glossary entry is a unique instance of the often-invisible editorial process being revealed in the final published text.

Alfred Kinsey and the Beginning of the Next Generation of Biology Text books

Not all the textbooks published just before or soon after the Scopes trial avoided discussion of evolution. Alfred Kinsey’s 1926 Introduction to Biology made a compelling case for evolution and even went so far as to mock those who claimed to disbelieve it:

Realizing all of this, wouldn’t it seem strange to you if some one should ask you if you really believe that organisms change their characters and become new things?

(p.148) But the scientific word for change is evolution, and there are some people who think they don’t believe in evolution. The man who says so may own a new breed of dog; he wears clothing made of new kinds of cotton, or wool from an improved variety of sheep; he eats bread made of an improved wheat, and buys kinds of corn and potatoes and fruits and things that were unknown to his grandparents; he grows a cut-leaved, newly developed kind of beech or birch or maple on his lawn, and new varieties of roses and chrysanthemums in his garden; and he may smoke a cigar made of a very recently improved tobacco. When he says he doesn’t believe in evolution, I wonder what he means!19

Kinsey’s textbook focused primarily on the artificial selection of plant and animal breeds and did not discuss the evolution of humans, but it does use the word evolution and, as seen in the passage quoted above, goes out of its way to call attention to the political movement against it. (The word evolution was not, however, included in the index.) Kinsey’s was one of the few books that did not adhere to what might be called the revision strategy of the period. Of course, the Introduction to Biology was not a revision and, as such, was one of the few high school biology textbooks published in the late 1920s that was not based on an earlier book by the same author. Kinsey was also trained as a zoologist, and, though he may have been influenced by Benjamin Gruenberg (who wrote much more about Kinsey and sex education in later decades), he was not a part of the network of biology educators who had played such a central role in the creation of civic biology and its propagation through textbooks in the 1910s and 1920s. Both Kinsey as an author and J. B. Lippincott as a publisher were new to the high school biology market.

It is not clear how important Kinsey’s response to antievolutionism was to the success of his textbook. Most of its sales came in the 1930s, in adoptions several years after the Scopes trial and after the issuance of most of the posttrial revised textbooks. Many of these sales were in Texas, where Governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson had the subject of evolution physically cut out from the state’s adopted biology textbooks.20 It was probably more important that Kinsey’s book was much less expensive than its competitors. Its retail price in Kentucky was $1.22, less than the next cheapest book (Clement’s Living Things at $1.38), and much less than the other five text-books adopted (whose prices averaged $1.53). In some cases, Kinsey agreed to cut his royalty percentage as he and Lippincott set out to undercut the competition.21 This may explain why his book sold as well as it did–especially after the economic collapse of 1929.

The Introduction to Biology also represented a shift away from the civic biology model of the 1910s and 1920s. Kinsey focused more on ecological (p.149) principles than urban and industrial applications of the life sciences. Some reviews of the Introduction to Biology recognized it as significantly different from the civic biology mode that had characterized high school biology since 1914–a mode that was retained in revised textbooks after the Scopes trial. In the words of one southern pedagogy expert, the University of North Carolina professor (and author of the “Science Column” for the High School Journal ) Carleton E. Preston, Kinsey’s book “was probably the best high school biology text of its particular period from the standpoint of the nature-lover.”22 Preston also praised the book for not “following the customary ’human welfare, health and wealth’ trend of biology texts for high schools.”23 A review in the Peabody Journal of Education (written by Jesse M. Shaver) was far more critical, calling it “hardly up to the standard set by Moon, Hunter, and others.”24

Kinsey’s and Lippincott’s departure from the paradigm of civic biology may have allowed it to reach a market that wanted neither civic biology nor the antiquated biology-zoology divide. This novelty may explain why their book experienced the success that it did. Though by no means a top seller in the biology marketplace, it sold close to 100,000 copies nationwide before being supplanted by an updated edition in 1933. In Kentucky, the textbook was adopted in 1930 along with nearly all the major post-Scopes revised civic biology textbooks (Hunter’s New Civic Biology, Smallwood, Reveley, and Bailey’s New General Biology, Clement’s Living Things, Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life, and Peabody and Hunt’s Biology and Human Welfare as well as Modern Biology, by Harry D. Waggoner).25 Texas adopted Kinsey’s book along with several others in 1932; however, it was outsold by each of the other textbooks the state approved. (The two largest sellers in the state were Clement’s Living Things and Smallwood, Reveley, and Bailey’s New General Biology.)26 It was also adopted in a few other southern states, including North Carolina (where Preston was located), but not Tennessee (where Shaver was).27

Kinsey’s book is less of a post-Scopes textbook and more of a pioneer of the next generation of textbooks after civic biology. Its sales show that not all the developments in biology education in the second half of the 1920s were reactions to the Scopes trial or to the antievolution movement. Its greater ecological focus and reduced emphasis on urban applications reflect a changing set of social priorities in the teaching of biology that became more influential in the 1930s with the textbooks of Ella Thea Smith and other new writers.28 These books focused on bringing a more integrated approach to nature that treated humanity as part of the natural environment. With greater discussion of applications of biology to agriculture, they also heralded the end of (p.150) an urban-rural split in high school biology teaching. Although Kinsey’s book was published soon after the Scopes trial, most of its sales came in the 1930s, just before the publication of Smith’s first textbook in 1932. (An updated New Introduction to Biology by Kinsey was published in 1933.) Perhaps this represented another strategy to cope with antievolutionism–to do away with the civic biology approach that had in many ways instigated the school antievolution movement. It is in those books that had earlier versions before the Scopes trial that the way in which publishers responded directly to the antievolution movement can best be seen. To really assess that reaction, it is sufficient to look no later than the early 1930s. The best sense of a revision strategy is revealed by comparing of Tennessee’s textbook adoptions in 1925 to the adoption that took place at the start of the next state cycle in 1931.

A Tacit Revision Strategy

It would be hard to describe the evolution of biology textbooks after the Scopes trial as the result of a deliberate strategy. There was no collusion on the part of textbook publishers to uniformly avoid the word evolution. Most textbook authors were in communication with one another, but rarely did they exercise much control over this aspect of their texts. George Hunter spoke to Benjamin Gruenberg while the ABC was “emasculating” his New Civic Biology. Gruenberg had had a much less confrontational relationship with Charles Thurber and the other editors at Ginn. Hunter and Gruenberg had rather different responses to what their publishers did, but neither of them had cut “evolution” out of their own books.

The perceived success of one book spawned imitations, but these perceptions reinforced themselves. News of Peabody and Hunt’s adoption in Tennessee was accompanied by members of the state textbook commission explicitly stating that the book did not contain evolution and the superintendent of the high school where Scopes taught saying that the new book did not contain any evolutionary trees. This gives some impression as to what it meant for a book not to contain evolution. It would seem that a book like Gruenberg’s–which had images of fossils described as millions of years old–should not have been acceptable, but, just before Gruenberg declined an invitation to testify for Scopes’s defense, it was added to Tennessee’s list. Clement’s book, hastily (and even sloppily) revised only to remove the word evolution, was accepted in Tennessee by October.

While the ABC fell behind its competitors in biology during the long revision of the New Civic Biology, Ginn grew more concerned about some of its smaller competitors who had managed to defeat it in major adoption (p.151) battles despite the quality of its books. George A. Plimpton, the company president, singled out biology as a field in which Ginn needed to improve its sales strategy in an address to the firm in January 1926:

The great sellers in the high schools of course are the first-year books and in this respect we are not up to our competitors. Take, for instance, biology: there are two books in New York State which have the market–Smallwood and Bailey by Allyn and Bacon, and Clement’s by Southworth. Now the point I want to emphasize is this: when we publish a good book, then some one ought to take steps to bring out a revised edition knowing full well that a competitor will bring out a book based on its corrections.29

The problem was not just in New York. Biology and Human Life had spearheaded the antievolutionary revision strategy before the Scopes trial even took place. Yet other publishers, especially Iroquois, were copying Ginn’s techniques and winning sales at that firm’s expense.

Successful adoptions were interpreted by other companies’ salesmen and editors as clues as to what the audience expected a biology book to be. As books that very clearly taught evolutionary concepts without using the word became more and more successful, textbook publishers perceived that removing the word was sufficient for a book to meet local criteria about not teaching evolution. This was not an explicit policy, and not all text-book publishers did this. In part, those that did were influenced by other publishers. But the ABC’s George Benton was also influenced by other factors, especially the reports of outside readers.

The idea that the word “evolution” was a problem seems to have first originated from outside the textbook publishing world entirely. Thurber cited outside criticism of Gruenberg’s textbooks stating that removing the word would be sufficient for antievolutionists. McHenry Rhoads and Jessie M. Shaver expressed similar sentiments in response to Hunter’s manuscript. The Peabody Journal editorial decrying the Tennessee law suggested something similar. In these cases, the idea that removing the word would be a sufficient strategy came from people who were not themselves antievolutionists. Thurber’s correspondence with Bryan may be the only exception, but Bryan did not fully endorse such a misleading revision (nor did Thurber at that time). These other experts held positions of leadership in education in places where school antievolutionism was widespread, which gave them a position of authority from which to explain how best to create a text that would be acceptable to antievolutionary communities. Textbook publishers expected these experts to know and understand the communities they (p.152) worked in, even when being asked to characterize a position they personally opposed. But these same experts saw Tennessee’s antievolutionism as a symbolic protest that “the friends of education swallowed…rather than lose the slight majority they could barely command to pass the really crucial education legislation.”30 It may have been that the suggestion to remove the word evolution was seen as an equally symbolic response to a symbolic protest, a gesture that school antievolutionists would accept.

If the selection of Biology and Human Welfare and Biology and Human Life in Tennessee immediately before the Scopes trial was any indication, this understanding of how textbook adopters thought of antievolutionism may have been largely accurate. However, one effect of the Scopes trial was the reinterpretation of school antievolutionism as inherently religious. It altered how antievolutionism was perceived by its opponents and how communities of antievolutionists perceived the issues associated with their opposition. It was not apparent that the same strategies would succeed after the trial.

To some extent, books published after the trial were shaped by perceptions of what antievolutionism meant to the communities that regulated textbooks. But they were also revised with firm attention to the amount of time and money that revisions would take and with reticence on the part of some editors to compromise the quality of their books’ content. The removal of the word evolution was in part a reflection of the way antievolutionists were seen by their opponents. But it was also the result of intellectual and economic compromises. The decision to include passages emphasizing the moral sensibilities of people, the beauty of nature, and even Darwin’s personal religious bearing also shows other ways in which the publishers understood their audience’s views of antievolutionism and the science and religion framework that affected those views. The ultimate success of these books means, not that they accurately reflected the real concerns of an antievolutionary society, but that textbook producers were able to sell their books as responses to the trial.

Reading and Selling Text Books Without “Evolution”

It would not have been enough for textbook publishers to decide that the best strategy for high school biology textbooks was removing the word evolution and including passages showing religion favorably. For the books to be successful, sales forces would once again have to sell a new kind of text-book and convince adopters that their textbooks would not teach anything (p.153) objectionable to their children. Jessie Shaver’s review stating that Hunter’s New Civic Biology did not contain evolution was a great help to the ABC. A clipping of this review from one of the most respected education journals in the South was an influential weapon in a salesman’s arsenal. It affirmed to readers that, as understood by an expert in education, the book did not teach evolution. At the same time, the letters that Charles Thurber exchanged with William Jennings Bryan in 1923 were circulated among the directors of Ginn in September 1925. What had been suggested as a method of writing or revising textbooks had now become instructions for how to read and market their new textbook in the months following the Scopes trial.31

Despite the rise in regulation, textbooks were sold in the late 1920s and early 1930s in a way that was still similar to how they had been sold in the late nineteenth century: they were pitched and adopted with little direct reference to their content. Textbook regulation did little to affect the role of content in adoptions. When Tennessee passed a revised textbook law in 1927, the state textbook commission was obliged not to select books containing a partisan bias, but was instructed to give substantial consideration to the cost and physical durability and quality of the book. State-level regulation had taken away some of the element of personal relationship between textbook salesmen and local adopters and significantly curtailed corruption. (The Tennessee law also forbade anyone who had ever been employed or given gifts by a publisher from serving on the state commission. The $100 that W. T. H. Howe paid Jesse Shaver for his report on the New Civic Biology manuscript might have disqualified him.) Nonetheless, textbook salesmanship emphasized the book’s physical quality and the publisher’s ability to meet demand. Shaver’s review would have been a sufficient testimonial to assure adopters that the book was acceptable with regard to its nontreatment of evolution.

Reviews like Shaver’s essentially proposed an interpretation of the book in question. In this case, that interpretation was the following: a book not containing the word evolution does not contain evolution, even if it includes discussion of heredity and variation and the development of plants, animals, and humans. Salesmen not only used these interpretations; they offered their own to suit the desires of potential adopters. ABC sales agents reported that, before the New Civic Biology was available, other companies were using news of the Scopes trial to attack the old Civic Biology. Even though, technically, the old book did not contain anything strictly prohibited by the Tennessee law, rival salesmen had effectively sold an interpretation of the textbook that rendered it unacceptable.

(p.154) It was even possible for textbook salesmen to sell completely opposite interpretations of the same book to different markets. In the October, just after the Scopes trial, James Peabody sent Henry Fairfield Osborn a copy of some of the promotional materials that Macmillan was using to sell Biology and Human Welfare. In addition to pamphlets for distribution, this included a typewritten outline of arguments and a collection of quotations from the book meant to be used to convince regulators that the book would meet their needs when it came to the evolution question. The first thing that the sales memorandum notes is that Biology and Human Welfare was “adopted as ’safe’ for use in high schools by the Tennessee Textbook Commission” and “held up by the California officials because it teaches ’evolution.’”32 The question of whether the book taught evolution depended less on the text itself than on the way in which the book was sold.

Textbook salesmen were in a unique position to market interpretations along with the actual textbooks. The people responsible for selecting and using textbooks already relied on salesmen and the textbooks themselves to inform them of new developments in pedagogy and curricula. Where teachers were not well trained, it was often expected that they would rely on the textbooks to dictate the content of their courses. This dependence on textbook salesmen and their products was not ideal from the point of view of education experts, who had long decried the power textbook publishers held in American education. They saw the reliance on textbook salesmen as proof that more teacher training was imperative. However, this dependence continued unabated in many places after the Scopes trial, prompting the University of Iowa professor of education E. J. Ashbaugh to lament in 1926:

Textbooks are used by the children and teachers because they have been adopted. They are adopted by lay boards of education, sometimes only on the advice of the sales agent. Sometimes the adoption follows the recommendation of the superintendent, a group of principals, or a committee of teachers. Rarely, however, has any individual or group been able to go back to the claims of the author or the agent and verify these claims. In general these statements must be taken on faith, faith that these claims contain the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This again places a heavy responsibility upon the author of a text.33

While Ashbaugh perhaps attributed too much responsibility to authors and not enough to others involved in textbook creation, he did observe the role sales agents still played in the 1920s in getting their textbooks into schools and the role that those textbooks played once they were in the class-room. (p.155) How they were used and read determined much of what made a particular interpretation of a text possible.

In what way were these biology textbooks acceptable in states like Tennessee and Arkansas, where antievolution was the law? How could a book like Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life, which teaches about Darwin’s theory of natural selection giving rise to new variations among species and describes fossils as millions of years old; or Smallwood, Reveley, and Bailey’s New General Biology, which instructs students to compare the bone structures of moles and bats with their own arms, not be considered to be teaching evolution?

In 1931, Tennessee made its first post-Scopes textbook adoption. It chose Biology and Human Life, New General Biology, Clement’s Living Things, and– most surprisingly–Hunter’s New Civic Biology. In effect, the state endorsed the strategies of word removal and favorable mentions of religion and did so with the presumption that it was selecting books that would not teach evolution. But, even if members of these adoption boards did attempt to regulate the content of the textbooks, the most cursory glance at the books would confirm their acceptability. The word evolution is absent from the indices, glossaries, tables of contents, and the main texts (with only some ancillary mentions of the word in New General Biology–probably the least used of the textbooks). If the first step in checking a book’s content is to look for the word evolution or to look for an evolutionary illustration, the books would survive. (It is most telling that a book that was truly devoid of discussion of evolution but whose glossary included the word by mistake was not adopted.)

Members of textbook adoption committees were not experts in biology and quite likely unaware of or unconcerned with details of evolutionary theory. They were not appointed to adopt only biology textbooks or even only science textbooks. With a large number of options to chose from in every topic, would a committee member without scientific expertise, already assured that the biology textbooks under consideration did not contain evolution, need to judge whether discussions of “heredity and variation” still taught something unacceptable? Even if a member of the textbook commission was less than fully satisfied with this word-removal strategy, the alternatives were not books that taught less evolution but books like Kinsey’s that taught it aggressively. The authority with which the books were described as not containing evolution, the lack of textbooks that were any less evolutionary than these, and the existence of a plausible interpretation of the books as nonevolutionary made them acceptable. It is likely that (p.156) most textbook adopters relied on salesmen, on textbook reviews and expert opinions, and on the endorsement (via adoption) of a textbook by other states with similar views.

Ironically, these textbooks were published in the wake of a trial that was explicitly and very self-reflectively about the nature of literal interpretation. That readers who already self-identified as literalists constituted a significant part of their perceived audience may have affected how publishers assumed the textbooks would be read.


(1) Numbers Ronald L., Darwinism Comes to America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 8–10.

(2) . W. T. H. Howe to W. W. Livengood, March 19, 1924, American Book Company Archives, Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, NY. “Columbia” refers to Teachers College.

(3) “The Teacher and the Truth,” Peabody Journal of Education 2, no. 6 (May 1925): 331–332.

(4) Ibid., 333, 329.

(5) Ibid., 331.

(p.185) (6) . C. H. Thurber to William Jennings Bryan, November 21, 1923, container 38, William Jennings Bryan Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscripts Division, Washington, DC.

(7) . William Jennings Bryan to C. H. Thurber, December 22, 1923, container 38, Bryan Papers.

(8) Gruenberg Benjamin C., Elementary Biology (Boston: Ginn, 1924), n.p. (preceding title page).

(9) Gruenberg Benjamin C., Biology and Human Life (Boston: Ginn, 1925), 4–5 (illustrations), 581 (quote).

(10) in “Evolution Not Mentioned in New Dayton Textbook,” Washington Post, July 19, 1925, 9.

(11) Peabody James E. and Hunt Arthur E., Biology and Human Welfare (New York: Macmillan, 1924), 6.

(12) Clement Arthur G., Living Things: An Elementary Biology (Syracuse: Iroquois, 1924), 433–434, 455.

(13) . Minutes of the state textbook commission, October 6, 1925, folder 2, container 44, Governor Austin Peay Papers, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.

(14) Smallwood William M., Reveley Ida L., and Bailey Guy A., New General Biology (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1929), 646–649.

(15) ibid., 646.

(16) Ibid., 167–68 (on dinosaurs), 226–30 (on mammals), 699–700 (on eugenics), 706 (quotation).

(17) Smallwood William M., Reveley Ida L., and Bailey Guy A., Practical Biology (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1916), 123.

(18) Atwood William H., Biology (Philadelphia: Blakiston’s, 1927), 222 (common ancestry), 496 (quotation).

(19) Kinsey Alfred C., Introduction to Biology (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1926), 196–97.

(20) Moran Jeffrey P., The Scopes Trial: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002), 51.

(21) Drucker Donna J., “Creating the Kinsey Reports: Intellectual and Methodological Influences on Alfred Kinsey’s Sex Research, 1919–1953” (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 2008).

(22) . C.E.P. [Preston Carleton E.], review of New Introduction to Biology, by A. C. Kinsey, High School Journal 17, no. 6 (October 1934): 219.

(23) Preston Carleton E., “The Science Column,” High School Journal 13, no. 4 (April 1930): 181.

(24) . J.M.S. [Shaver Jesse M.], review of New Introduction to Biology, by A. C. Kinsey, Peabody Journal of Education 5, no. 1 (July 1927): 55.

(25) List of Textbooks Approved by State Textbook Commission of Kentucky, 1930–1935 (Frankfort, KY: State Journal Co., 1932), 35.

(26) Textbook Regulations Containing Texas Textbook Law, General Information Regarding the Law and Lists of State Adopted Textbooks (Austin, TX: State Department of Education, 1934), 43.

(27) Drucker, “Creating the Kinsey Reports,” 44.

(28) Ladoucer Ronald P., “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks,” Journal of the History of Biology 41, no 3 (September 2008): 435–71.

(29) . George A. Plimpton, address to firm meeting, January 1926, George A. Plimpton Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York.

(30) “The Teacher and the Truth,” 331.

(31) . Copies of both C. H. Thurber to William Jennings Bryan, November 21, 1923, and Bryan to Thurber, December 22, 1923, can be found in a folder labeled “C. H. Thurber, 1925” in the (p.186) Plimpton Papers. Though no letter accompanies the copies and there is no indication when they were made, their placement within the folder suggests that they were forwarded to Plimpton by Thurber around September 1925.

(32) . “Biology and Human Welfare by Peabody and Hunt,” memorandum enclosed with James E. Peabody to Henry Fairfield Osborn, October 3, 1925, box 1291, Henry Fairfield Osborn Papers, Central Archives, Special Collections, American Museum of Natural History, New York.

(33) E.J.A. [E. J. Ashbaugh], “With the Textbook as a Text,” Educational Research Bulletin 5, no. 16 (November 3, 1926): 338.