On Genetics, Race, and Textbooks

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Much of the current debate in education focuses on the content of school curricula and textbooks. What elements of our history and culture should schools transmit to our children? Is it possible to embody these cultural and intellectual traditions effectively in textbooks?

Sound texts prepare students for the world they are about to enter by reflecting its complexity. Use of such books helps ensure that schooling is synonymous with education.

Yet textbooks have not always met this standard; they have often avoided complexity. When books telling incomplete or oversimplified stories are used, society transmits only a selection of its traditions, and schooling amounts merely to acculturation.

Interestingly, a lesson about the content of textbooks lies beneath the surface of the recent controversy over racially charged comments by the sportscaster Jimmy "the Greek'' Snyder. In this case, the lesson concerns the selective content that Mr. Snyder and others of his generation may have learned in school.

Mr. Snyder's suggestion earlier this year that contemporary black American athletes have benefited from human-breeding programs supposedly undertaken during the days of slavery implicitly supported a social program called eugenics. Amid the firestorm of reaction his televised remarks generated, one may well have wondered how the commentator came to hold these views. Could he have gleaned such ideas from his textbooks?

The term "eugenics'' was coined by the British scientist Sir Francis Galton in 1883. For Galton and his followers, human beings could best improve their lot through the manipulation of heredity.

In what was to become known as the nature-versus-nurture debate, the eugenicists were radical naturalists. Believing that nurture accounted for little in human performance, they argued that the less able members of society should make way for those with hereditary advantage. The movement was associated in politics with immigration restriction, segregation and sterilization, and programs of human breeding.

What of its presence in school textbooks?

The findings from my review of biology texts in the U.S. Education Department's library archive are striking. Of 49 biology textbooks published between 1914 and 1949, more than 90 percent included eugenics as legitimate content.

Human worth, these books argued, ran in families, and inherited traits--for good or for evil--dictated the behavior of individuals. The texts warned their high-school readers to choose their mates and careers in light of these alleged facts.

This is bad biology: It ignores the complexity of human development, which is based on nurture as well as nature.

Even more significant is the fact that more than 75 percent of these texts supported programs of positive eugenics for society's most able members, while more than 45 percent backed the practice of negative eugenics for those judged inferior. That is, they strongly supported programs of human breeding.

Perhaps some of those who today speak favorably of such programs are simply reflecting what they learned in school in the 1930's. Yet even at that time, not everyone agreed on the feasibility of such breeding.

As the noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu, now at Princeton University, noted in the early 1940's, such programs were doomed to failure on the grounds of genetics.

"Were every feebleminded individual to be sterilized for the next 2,000 years,'' he explained, "the reduction in the number of feebleminded individuals in the population at the end of that time would not exceed 50 percent.''

And, he concluded, that "is a very long time to have to wait for such a return.''

Indeed, by the 1920's, geneticists had recognized the remarkable complexity of most human qualities and had rejected eugenics on technical grounds. Even if slave owners had tried to breed their human property, as Mr. Snyder suggested, genetics and time were not with them.

Yet one could counter that Mr. Snyder and his like-minded classmates are simply products of bad biology textbooks--that they have failed to follow changes in the theories of genetics.

As a consequence, they have come to believe that one could easily breed for, say, superior muscular development in the legs of blacks--what Mr. Snyder referred to as the "thigh situation.'' If this erroneous thinking were the only issue under consideration, then Mr. Snyder could be judged as little more than an intellectual innocent. A sad conclusion, but not a chargeable offense.

But another implication in his remarks is far more serious: the transforming of performance differences between individual athletes into racial differences. And this racial interpretation is not to be found in any of the textbooks in question.

Such views are not new, however. When raised earlier in this century, they were powerfully rejected at that time by members of the scientific community.

A classic study refuting the notion of such racial differences was published by W. Montagu Cobb of Howard University in 1936. The specifics of the case are strikingly similar to those of the Snyder controversy. In the 1930's, the issue was not thighs and race, but sprinting or running ability and race. And some members of the press, Mr. Cobb noted, had charged that "the current success of American Negro sprinters and broad jumpers ... [was] in some way ... due to racial characteristics.''

Mr. Cobb proposed to evaluate the charge by physically measuring the most famous black American athletes of the time, including Jesse Owens, and comparing them with white athletes. If the newspapers were right, Mr. Owens and the others should have possessed physical characteristics that distinguished them as blacks. They did not.

"There is not a single physical characteristic,'' Mr. Cobb concluded, "which all the Negro stars in question have in common which would definitely identify them as Negroes.''

In the case of Mr. Owens, the findings were again clear. "Jesse Owens, who has run faster and leaped farther than a human being has ever done before,'' Mr. Cobb concluded, "does not have what is considered the Negroid type of calf, foot, and heel bone.''

The race thinkers were wrong in 1936, and they are wrong today. Short-term breeding programs do not account for human differences on the playing field.

Fortunately, theories of eugenics have been discredited by science and are not found in current texts.

Subject though it is to prejudices, the human mind can change through an education that confronts human complexity. The good news is that the content to counter misconceptions about race is now available. It's in the best of today's textbooks.

Vol. 07, Issue 26, Page 24

Published in Print: March 23, 1988, as On Genetics, Race, and Textbooks
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