Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools by Adam R. Shapiro (review)
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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. $35.00 cloth; $30.00 ebook)

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. In Trying Biology, 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 [End Page 168] is a profoundly dirty history, deliberately obscured by textbook sales agents themselves. As Shapiro relates, textbook sales agents routinely engaged in bribery, illegal snooping, and political chicanery. 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 80 percent of the textbook market.

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.

It has become something of a truism among historians that textbook publishers ran scared after the Scopes trial. 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. 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 [End Page 169] from the text and from the index. In most cases, that simple change passed political muster.

Historians 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 caricature of the Scopes trial. 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. [End Page 170]

Adam Laats

Adam Laats is an historian in the Graduate School of Education at Binghamton University, State University of New York. He is the author of Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin, and the Roots of America’s Culture Wars (2010).

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