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Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks

Abstract

Two influential articles published in the 1970s suggested that pressure from Christian fundamentalists, subsequent to the Scopes trial of 1925, 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.

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Correspondence to Ronald P. Ladouceur.

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Ladouceur, R.P. Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks. J Hist Biol 41, 435–471 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-007-9139-3

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Keywords

  • Biological Sciences Curriculum Study
  • biology textbooks
  • BSCS
  • civic Biology
  • creationism
  • Ella Thea Smith
  • evolution
  • exploring Biology
  • modern Biology
  • racial development
  • scopes trial