Publishers are more sensitive to the mood of the market.
Proponents of creationism may not be making headway in courts and state legislatures, but the nation’s major textbook publishers are aiding their cause.
It’s not so much that creationist theory has found its way into biology textbooks—there is little evidence of that—but rather that the texts have been edited to downplay or ignore evolution or to leave room for readers to believe there are other, coequal theories for creation and the development of life.
This was brought home starkly this summer, when New York City public schools rejected three textbooks because they give inadequate treatment to the Darwinian theory of evolution. One of the books completely omits the word “evolution” and makes no mention of Charles Darwin. A second contains a passage describing the creationist hypothesis. “In some school systems,” the passage adds, “it is mandated that the evolution and special creation theories be taught side by side. That seems a healthy attitude in view of the tenuous nature of the hypothesis.”
The move by New York City officials only brings to public attention a trend of at least 10 years—one that predates the evolutionist-creationist controversy of recent months. Under pressure from fundamentalists in Texas and other conservative states where the publishers must sell textbooks to make a profit nationwide, many publishers have fashioned their books to please the antievolutionists.
Gerald Skoog, chairman of secondary education in the College of Education at Texas Tech University, has submitted several standard books to rigorous computer analysis. “In the 1970s,” he says, “the overall coverage of evolution in biology textbooks was reduced. Many statements about evolution became less definite, more cautious, and thus, less controversial than those appearing in editions in the 1960s.”
Many of the changes were subtle, involving qualifications to reduce dogmatic statements about evolution. “The evidence that shows how …” became “Evidence that is often interpreted to mean.…” Changes were made to avoid evolutionary assumptions. “Slowly, over millions of years, dinosaurs died out” became “Slowly, the dinosaurs died out.”
Other changes were in definitions. One book accepted by the California Board of Education in the 1960s called evolution a “central explanatory hypothesis in the biological sciences. Students who have taken a biology course without learning about evolution probably have not been adequately or honestly educated.” The changed version reads: “Evolution is a central explanatory hypothesis in the biological sciences. Therefore, students need some knowledge of its assumptions and basic concepts.”
One biology text, published in 1981, did not use the word “evolution” or have a specific chapter on evolution. Others traditionally have placed the chapter on Darwin far back in the volume, so teachers may ignore it or explain that they “didn’t get to it.” One of the books rejected in New York, Laidlaw Brothers’ Experiences in Biology, deleted the term “evolution,” according to Eugene Frank, the firm’s director of publications, “because we wanted teachers to be permitted to teach biology without being forced to face controversy from pressure groups.” Frank said evolutionary concepts were contained in the book under different terminology.
The publishers, who are in a highly competitive business that depends for profits on high-volume sales nationwide, wring their hands privately about the pressures brought to bear on their industry. Publicly, however, they have little to say. And it is difficult to obtain accurate figures on how the adjustments made to satisfy antievolutionary sentiment have affected sales.
The largest-selling text in history is a basic high school biology book, Holt, Rinehart and Winston’s Modern Biology. Probably the majority of today’s biology teachers cut their teeth on this staple, which has undergone numerous revisions in its 60 years. Knowledgeable observers say Modern Biology today commands 50 percent of the high school market.
The 1981 version has a dozen entries under evolution and pays more attention to evolutionary theory. It ends with a chapter on ecology. “We haven’t backed off in any manner,” says Robert D. Tompkins, Holt’s publisher of mathematics and science, adding that Modern Biology does not discuss creationism because “that isn’t a science.… There’s been no censorship in-house and no censorship from the outside. We haven’t changed our emphasis on evolution.” Skoog disagrees. His analysis of Modern Biology shows coverage of evolution was expanded through the 1960s, then reduced significantly in 1977.
(Holt says the 1977 reduction might be attributable to a 100-page decrease in the length of the book. The firm’s own analysis of four editions from 1969 to 1981 shows only a slight variation in coverage of evolution.)
But Modern Biology and all other biology texts were swept up in a revolution in the early sixties. That was the work of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), which in the aftermath of Sputnik, was given $7 million by the National Science Foundation to create modern biology courses for the public schools. Three textbooks were developed, each emphasizing a different part of biological research: molecular biology, cell biology, and ecology.
Concepts and process were stressed in all three. And evolutionary assumptions, which BSCS described as the “warp and woof of modern biology,” pervaded the three curricula—and still do. After they were farmed out to publishers, the first test came in Texas. Fundamentalists accused Houghton Mifflin’s Molecules to Man of being “godless” and “atheistic.” After weeks of controversy, Texas adopted all three BSCS books in 1964, and the Sweetwater Texas Reporter headlined: “Darwin Declared Winner in Texas ‘Monkey War.’ ”
Houghton Mifflin still publishes Molecules to Man and still reportedly makes money on it. But the Texas adoption did not last long. Today, no BSCS books are among the five approved for state purchase in Texas high schools, and BSCS, which commanded more than half of the business in the United States in the late 1960s, has slipped to 25–30 percent. BSCS is strongest in northern states and weakest in the 22 mostly southern “adoption” states, where central committees of educators and bureaucrats make decisions on textbook purchases statewide.
(Texas is considered by publishers to be the bellwether state because of its size and its limited adoption list. Only five books are approved in each subject, and this year’s list is expected to account for $37 million in purchases. The current biology adoption is estimated to be worth about $2.5 million, and a new adoption will be announced in 1984. BSCS materials, though, are sold in all 50 states. Many teachers and school districts throughout the South purchase them directly from the publishers, paying with local funds.)
BSCS is the only one of the curriculum reform projects that survives today (there were others in physics, chemistry and mathematics), though in the aftermath of National Science Foundation and other federal cutbacks, it is but a shadow of its former self. William V. Meyer, former director, says he resents the “vendetta against BSCS books. It’s a kind of blackmail, and I don’t like blackmail.”
Meyer and observers like Andrea Bowden, a former president of the Maryland Science Teachers Association who evaluates biology textbooks, say many teachers avoid evolution in their classrooms, regardless of the required text. “Teachers’ colleges don’t prepare them to teach evolutionary concepts,” Bowden says, “and teachers don’t want to get involved in controversy. So they resort to memorization, just as their teachers forced them to.”
Wayne A. Moyer, executive director of the National Association of Biology Teachers, says the fundamentalists have had “some effect on the integrity” of biology texts, but he detects a counter-reaction from those who are concerned. “The publishers really don’t have a constituency for good science,” he says, “and that’s the trouble. It’s obligatory for people who make a living in science to get out there and support it.”
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