Evolution in American high school textbooks

Scopes Trial newspaper cartoon, 1925, Collection of Richard MilnerIn a recent issue of the Journal of the History of Biology, 41(3), Ronald Ladouceur debunked the commonly-held belief that discussions of evolution were suppressed following the Scopes trial of 1925.

Two influential articles published in the 1970s suggested that pressure from Christian fundamentalists… forced American high school biology textbook authors and publishers to significantly limit discussion of the topic of evolution. The conclusions reached by these studies have become foundational for historians examining the interplay between science and religion in the United States in the twentieth century. However, a reexamination of key twentieth century biology textbooks suggests that the narrative that the treatment of the theory of evolution was held hostage to anti-rational cultural forces is largely a myth, created first as part of a public relations effort by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) to differentiate, defend, and promote its work, and later as part of an attempt by scholars to sound a warning concerning the rise of the religious right. A focus on this narrative has not only allowed biologists to sidestep uncomfortable questions regarding the race-biased and class-biased assumptions embedded within the concept of evolutionary progress, it has also limited reliance on the texts in question as reliable reflections of the cultural assumptions of educators and scientists. A reexamination of the most popular American biology textbooks from 1907 to 1963, particularly the work of Ella Thea Smith, provides evidence in support of these contentions. (Abstract)

Ladouceur has also produced a compagnion website, with post-publication commentary, errata and additional source material.

This archive includes additional biographical information plus a selection of relevant texts, including a copy of Smith’s original typewritten and mimeographed textbook from 1932.

This supplementary material can be found here.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

One thought on “Evolution in American high school textbooks

  1. Jeremy, thanks for the plug! I’ve added your very interesting blog to my bookmarks. I too took a Master’s in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus on History. Good luck with the Ph.D.

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