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A Book for No Seasons

The forgotten aspects of John Scopes's famous biology textbook.

12:00 AM, Jul 12, 2007 • By GARIN HOVANNISIAN
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EIGHTY-TWO YEARS ago this week, Dayton, Tennessee received its summer of fame with Scopes v. State. The town's charming county courthouse bloomed with celebrities--among them, superstar populist William Jennings Bryan, attorney Clarence Darrow, and journalist H.L. Mencken, whose 25,000 words on the impending trial would echo between the nation's coasts. At the center of the moment sat John Scopes, the quiet schoolteacher accused of teaching evolution from a textbook mandated, ironically, by the state.

George William Hunter's A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (1914) was the book that sparked the controversy. Condemned as heretical in 1925, today it would seem to be a manual for enlightenment's battle against religion's perceived mysticism. Yet if John Scopes were to teach the very same Civic Biology in a modern classroom, he would probably be put on trial again. Because buried under the dust of history is the fact that this progressive, pro-evolution text was also quite racist.

Take, for example, these lines from page 196 of Hunter's original version:

At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.

Hunter was also a proponent of eugenics. "[T]he science of being well born," his text instructed, is an imperative for sophisticated society. "When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand," he wrote, arguing that tuberculosis, epilepsy, and even "feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity."

"If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading," Hunter lamented in Civic Biology. "Humanity will not allow this but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race."

Subsequent editions of the textbook, like the ones I found at the Library of Congress, were cleansed of such views. Terms like "civilized white inhabitants" were disappeared, while references to "evolution" were replaced with "development of man." But these revisions were chiefly the design of Hunter's publishers who, in spite of the author's protests, sought to "omit statements that are likely to give offense to large numbers of people in control of the schools."

Outraged by the "emasculation" of his work and out of patience by 1926, Hunter wrote, "I have never felt so depressed and disgusted with a revision as this one. I thought I had the material for a mighty good book and it was before you people spoiled it."

A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems is a book for no season: It insulted the religious believers of its era and embarrasses the progressive secularists of ours. Packed with the stuff of lasting offense, Hunter's text now sits sterilized as the New Civic Biology, the victim of a natural selection process quite different from what its author imagined.

Garin Hovannisian is a writer living between Washington, D.C. and New York. He keeps a blog at