Required Reading: Adam Shapiro, Trying Biology

[Editor’s note: This review is an extended version of a review published in the most recent edition of the  Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.  It is reproduced with permission.]

The Scopes Trial gets all the attention.  Still.  In popular histories of evolution controversies, and even in some academic histories, Scopes still hogs the stage.  As Adam R. Shapiro rightly notes, the trial itself needs to be put in context of a much broader set of cultural, scientific, and educational issues (p. 11).

Trying Biology

Trying Biology

In Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, Shapiro offers an indispensable new argument about the crucial issues at play in evolution education in the 1920s.  The Scopes trial, Shapiro argues, must not be understood simply as an epochal, inevitable clash of cultures.  Rather, the trial and its environment can only be understood in the context of the nitty-gritty history of textbook publishing.

And that is a profoundly dirty history, deliberately obscured by textbook sales agents themselves (p. 42).  As Shapiro relates, textbook sales agents routinely engaged in bribery, illegal snooping, and political chicanery (p. 18).  It is no wonder that self-styled progressive school reformers often lamented the power of the “book trust.”  Indeed, in its heyday in the 1920s, the American Book Company conglomerate controlled up to eighty percent of the textbook market (p. 20).

This is more than just a lament about sharp monopoly practices.  As Shapiro argues, the publishing business “provides a striking example of how scientific knowledge has been produced and distributed to nonspecialists” (p. 43).  Two starkly different communities bumped along in the high-stakes work of textbook production.

Textbook authors, Shapiro writes, tended to work collaboratively, in a culture dominated by science teachers from New York.  These authors wanted sales, but they also hoped to spread the gospel of evolutionary science.  In many cases, authors tied that message to “progressive solutions to economic, public health, and social problems” (p. 71).

Textbook sales agents, on the other hand, cared little about the content of their product.  Instead, they lived in a world of cutthroat competition, their eyes fixed squarely on the bottom line.  Shapiro convincingly demonstrates the way the influence of these sales agents often determined editorial decisions (p. 113).

The tension between salesmen and authors is not the only complicating factor in Shapiro’s book.  Issues of science and religion in the 1920s, he argues, often took a back seat to political questions of textbook cost and quality.  Issues of creation or evolution came as secondary considerations to more basic questions, such as the expansion of compulsory education.  In Tennessee, for instance, Shapiro notes the maneuvering that went on to pass the famous 1925 anti-evolution Butler Act.  Governor Austin Peay, Shapiro argues, signed the anti-evolution law as part of a grand compromise.  Conservatives got their anti-evolution law, while progressives finally passed their General Education Act.  This new law got more young people into schools for longer.

As Governor Peay noted at the time, this seemed like a no-brainer for progressives.  Compulsory education laws had long been anathema to conservatives.  By passing the new compulsory education law, Peay hoped to change the educational and economic landscape of Tennessee for decades to come.  In contrast, at the time, an anti-evolution law seemed to hold only symbolic value.

Of course, the tumultuous Scopes Trial proved Peay wrong.  The conflict in Dayton, Tennessee made Tennessee the symbol of rural creationist revolt.  Afterwards, as Shapiro explores, textbook publishers rushed to revise their textbooks to make them more palatable to anti-evolution conservatives.  Historians have long assumed that such revisions took out evolution content, content that was not replaced in American textbooks until the 1960s.  Shapiro tells a more nuanced story.  Using the example of George Hunter’s Civic Biology—the book at issue in the Scopes Trial—Shapiro reconstructs the complex process of textbook revision.

As Shapiro shows, Hunter himself insisted on keeping evolution as a prominent theme.  Such a focus, Hunter believed, would increase sales among science-minded education leaders (pp. 114, 131).  Given the number of influences involved in textbook production, however, revised editions of the book carefully excised the word evolution.  As did other leading science textbooks, new editions of Hunter’s biology kept much of the content in place.  But editors and sales agents cynically removed the word evolution from the text and from the index.  In most cases, that simple change passed political muster.

A page from George Hunter's Civic Biology.  Bryan objected to this page at the Scopes Trial.  By putting humans in among a small circle of "Mammals," Bryan objected, this chart misrepresented the central place of humanity in God's plan.

A page from George Hunter’s Civic Biology. Bryan objected to this page at the Scopes Trial. By putting humans in among a small circle of “Mammals,” Bryan believed, this chart misrepresented the central place of humanity in God’s plan.

Those interested in the tangled history of creation/evolution debates will be well advised to consider Shapiro’s careful argument about the relationships between science, education, and textbook publishing.  As Shapiro notes, the antievolution movement must not be reduced to a Scopes-Trial caricature.  In order to make sense of the tumultuous culture of educational politics in the 1920s, we must understand the nascent field of biology education and the convoluted process of textbook production.

Further Reading: Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools.  By Adam R. Shapiro. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.  Pp. 193.)

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