Suprises in Early Children’s Books About Evolution

From the Scopes to Dover Area School District teaching evolution continues to be a perennial sore spot in American education. More often than not textbooks are at the center of these controversies. There are several excellent studies of the history of Evolution in text books. In Trial and Error Edward Larson argued that the scopes trial exacerbated “Existing restrictions and fears of further controversy” in teaching about evolution and ultimately “led commercial publishers to de-emphasize evolution in their high school textbooks.” In a similar vein sociologist Gerald Skoog found after the Scopes Trial “The most sensitive evolutionary topics, including the origin of life and the evolution of man, rarely appeared at all” in textbooks “Less than half of the texts even used the word “evolution”. ” Curiously, the the Scopes trial seems to have had the opposite effect on children’s books about evolution. Books directed at a much younger audience. The first time the Children’s Catalog, a guide to Children’s books for librarians, listed books under the heading “Evolution” was the year after the scopes trial.

William Maxwell Reed‘s 1929 book The Earth for Sam is one of the first American children’s books to engage with evolution. ( I have found six other books from the same time period) In an example endemic of all these children’s evolution books Reed claims; “We saw life become a cell, then a group of cells. In turn there have appeared before us the fish, the amphibian, the reptile, and the mammal.” He goes on to address human decent directly; “Finally from among the mammals there appeared the primates and from among the primates the European white primates who founded the British Empire and the United States of America.” While the textbooks were becoming conservative, often not even mentioning the word evolution, children’s books emerged boldly asserting an ancient earth, and the decent of man.

I think this example may be a fruitful one for considering the relationship between children’s books and textbooks more generally. Every student gets the textbook. I think this may well make them a much more conservative medium. In contrast children’s books can be marketed to smaller niche groups of parents and librarians; allowing them to encompass a broader range of perspectives. Because Historians and Sociologists considering the place of evolution in the history of American education have focused on textbooks they have missed some nuance in this history. Instead of Scopes forcing education to become much more conservative, the trial appears to have had a polarizing effect. Simultaneously forcing the conservative medium of textbooks to cut out evolution and in parallel creating enough public interest in the topic to substantiate a new genre of children’s literature on the topic.

Pictures from William Maxwell Reed, The Earth for Sam: The Story of Mountains, Rivers, Dinosaurs and Men. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.