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A long-overdue review of Hunter’s A Civic Biology

by Robert W Carter

A-civic-biology
Published: 1 September 2020 (GMT+10)

Hunter’s A Civic Biology1 was the textbook at the centre of the famous Scopes Monkey trial in 1925. The author, George William Hunter, was a college professor, prominent member of the ACLU,2 and a former high school teacher in New York City. The book was published in 1914 and had been adopted as the high school biology textbook by the state of Tennessee in 1919. By the time of the trial, it was more than a little outdated. The neighbouring state of Kentucky had adopted Hunter’s New Essentials in Biology in 1923. But Tennessee held back, letting its citizens re-use the older book and not have to buy new ones. The book included material on human evolution, which was not supposed to be taught in Tennessee schools due to the recently passed Butler Act. Even though teacher, John Scopes, had not taught anything about evolution, his use of the textbook became the catalyst for this landmark trial. Thus, the struggling little town of Dayton, which had shrunk from 4,000 to 1,500 people over recent years,3 became the epicenter of world events.

Why review a hundred-year-old book?

Historical perspective. It is always good to study history, and learning about the people who came before us is often an interesting experience. For example, in 1925, doctors were still wrestling with recurrent epidemics of cholera, tuberculosis, and typhoid. They did not yet know that smallpox was caused by a virus. Back then, the term virus was used to denote the curative or preventative lymph isolated from a previously infected animal that could be injected into another animal or person. They thought it could be due to a tiny parasite (p. 392), even though inoculation against smallpox was by then a 100-year-old technology. Rabies, another virus, was thought to be caused by a protozoan (p. 392). This information alone is fascinating.

Better understanding of our opponents. Do you know what the Darwinists were saying 100 years ago? How good were their arguments? Has the debate shifted? Were any of their arguments already invalid, and have any of them been invalidated since? Having answers to those questions can empower us.

To make better arguments for biblical creation. If we understand the basics of science, how evolutionists use science to advance their cause, and what the Bible says about these subjects, we can better handle ourselves when ‘scientific’ arguments are used to refute the Bible.

To follow biblical principles. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to “always [be] prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” Studying history helps us to do this.

What the book contains

George-William-Hunter

Overview. Civic Biology contains many interesting facts and the information is, mostly, presented in an orderly and comprehensive manner. As an introduction to biology, the book is a success. But it also contains some high-minded, almost preachy, ideas and ideals that are grating to the modern ear. There are also several extremely disjointed sections. For example, the sections on evolution that are abruptly inserted into the middle of the survey of living things.

Old and outdated information. We can forgive the author for outdated information, but analysing what scientists knew, and what they thought they knew at the time is simply interesting. For example, he classifies mildew differently than moulds (p. 135) and refers to bacteria as “tiny plants” (p. 16). He has an entire chapter about “Plants Without Chlorophyll”, which includes bacteria, yeasts, moulds, and fungi. Today, we divide these up among three separate Kingdoms and two overarching Domains. There were only about 80 elements in the periodic table of 1914 (p. 20). Today the number sits at 118. He vastly understates the number of insect (360,000) and flowering plant (110,000) species (p. 30), and he puts seaweeds, fungi, and bacteria into a single group, the Thallophytes, under plants.

Back then, people believed in the “ptomaine”4 poisoning theory (p. 147). Hunter labels formaldehyde as a poison, but incorrectly includes benzoic acid (p. 148), which then, as now, is added to foods to preserve them. After all, “the dose makes the poison” and both of these substances are in the things we eat. His list of antiseptics in use during his day is positively shocking: burning formaldehyde, carbolic acid (aka phenol), and bichloride of mercury (p. 149). Medical knowledge was somewhat lacking in his day. Hence, “Many children suffer needlessly from adenoids – growths in the back of the nose or mouth which prevent sufficient oxygen to be admitted into the lungs” (p. 395). He also mentions tonsils and tonsillectomies. In modern medicine, doctors are hesitant to remove these structures because they know they are a functional part of the human immune system and important as a first-line defence of the digestive and respiratory systems.

Finally, there is mention of “protoplasm (formed from two Greek words meaning first form)” (p. 50). He calls this the “living matter of the cell.” He says protoplasm can respond to stimuli, move, form new living matter out of food, breathe, expel waste products, and reproduce (p. 52). On p. 398 he documents the discovery and naming of protoplasm, and that Huxley (an ardent supporter of Darwin) claimed it was the chemical and physical basis of life. Today, we call the liquified portion of the cell cytoplasm, and there is nothing magical about it. Did this misunderstanding of what life was made of influence the development of Darwinism? Did a belief in protoplasm slow down the identification of cytoplasm?

Ideas that have withstood the test of time. Honestly, I was encouraged to see such a good understanding of diseases and their vectors. By this time, the causes of malaria, yellow fever, typhoid, and a host of other ailments had been worked out (p. 217 ff). They understood how bacteria, single-celled parasites, and miscellaneous animals, contributed to diseases, but they did not have modern medicines and antibiotics. Hunter also documents an outbreak of smallpox in the town of Niagara Falls, NY (1913–1914), noting that a strong anti-vaccination feeling in this town led to much lower rates of protection than in neighbouring towns (p. 401).

Correct scientific predictions. After combining Mendel’s laws with cell histology, by this time scientists had worked out that chromosomes contained genetic information. This was a long time before the Hershey–Chase experiment (1952) showed us that DNA is the carrier of information, but all the pieces were in place for Hunter to state, “These chromosomes in a given plant or animal are always constant in number. These chromosomes are supposed to be the bearers of the qualities which we believe can be handed down from plant to plant and from animal to animal , in other words, the inheritable qualities which make the offspring like its parents” (p. 50, see also p. 251).

Incorrect scientific predictions. Hunter suggests that good hygiene could eliminate tuberculosis, typhoid fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, blood poisoning, diarrhea, and a host of other illnesses (p. 153). Also, he claims that one cannot catch these diseases unless one is “run down” or “the tissues are in a worn-out condition”, that it is possible to cure the disease if caught early, and that sunlight, fresh air, nutritious food, and little exercise can cure tuberculosis (p. 154–155). Two of my great uncles died in a tuberculosis sanatorium in upstate NY. The ‘fresh air’ cure was a myth, even though he says these methods were “proved” to be a cure (p. 393).

Political incorrectness. Any reading of older books is going to bring up examples of political incorrectness. There is some sexism. For example, while talking about the power of the sun, he writes, “Any boy knows the power of a ‘burning glass’” (p. 88). But elsewhere, he does use the phrase “boy or girl” multiple times, to his credit. Much of the book is concerned about the relationship of animals and plants to man and the ways we can put them to use. This is contrary to the modern animal rights and environmentalist movements. I found it quite humorous that instructions on how to make beer and wine made it into a high school textbook! (p. 137–138). This is perplexing, since he rails against alcohol intake at multiple points. Hunter is clearly in support of the temperance/prohibition movement that was about to result in passing the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which banned the sale and possession of alcohol starting in 1920.

Environmental advocacy. The book deals much with city vs country, which is a little ironic, considering the setting of the Scopes trial was in a rural country town. He focuses on the relationship between biology and mankind, which I found refreshing in some ways. He was also keen on the environmental issues of the day; for example, the overfishing of lobster and overhunting of birds for their plumage, the recent (to him) extinction of the passenger pigeon, the destruction of the American chestnut by a blight, and the problems associated with the introduction of the European sparrow into North America. Environmentalist ideas are scattered throughout the text and are surprisingly modern in their presentation. Still, he was a product of his times and he advocated spreading oil on water to control mosquitoes (p. 219).

Biblical ideas. There is scant reference to any biblical ideas or theology in this thoroughly secular textbook. One sentence did manage to slip through: “Hundreds of little grasshoppers on the grass indicate that the grasshopper can reproduce its own kind … ” (p. 48). However, the meaning of ‘kind’ here is entirely vague. The creationist Louis Pasteur is mentioned by name at the end of a long discussion on pasteurization (p. 147), and again in a long passage about the great biologists of the past, but no mention is made of his religious beliefs or the fact that his experiments so readily argue against the naturalistic origin of life. William Harvey (blood circulation) and Joseph Lister (antiseptics) also merit mention.

Evolution

Early on (p. 24–25, 36, 57), the word adaptation is used ambiguously. He talks about things being ‘fitted’ for their role, yet everything he says sounds like ‘design’ (of the human hand, of plant roots, etc.). The student is forced to wait for clarification. This word does not appear again until page 192, where he uses the terms adaptation (squirrel limbs), modification (seal flippers), and modeled (bat wings) interchangeably. This page and the several following also have the heading “Evolution” with no further introduction. The index cites only two pages on which ‘evolution’ is used. Curiously absent is Haeckel’s recapitulation theory.

The first direct mention of evolution I saw was in a footnote at the end of chapter 5 (p. 70), referring to a book recommended for advanced students, Bailey’s The Evolution of our Native Fruits. But the concept appears in multiple places, including in a long section on Darwin’s contribution to science in the chapter titled “Some Great Names in Biology” (pp. 404 ff). I note that the historical record is a bit off on some details. For example, Darwin was not asked to be the ship’s naturalist on the Beagle. That was the job of the ship’s doctor. Darwin’s only responsibility was to be a dinner companion for the captain. Also mentioned as contributors to the theory are Wallace (co-inventor of evolution via natural selection), Weismann (a prominent Darwinist), and de Vries (discoverer of mutation). Today, people have mostly forgotten the name Luther Burbank, but he was world famous for his many plant breeds, and gets multiple mentions (pp. 255, 406).

Earlier in the book, after discussing Conrad Sprenger’s discovery that pollen was carried from anther to stigma by certain insects, we are introduced to “an Englishman, Charles Darwin” who discovered that the pollen growth on the stigma leads to the production of seeds. He did not say Darwin discovered that pollen contributes anything to the seed, but this is described on pp. 53–55, so it must have been known by 1914. He also recommends Darwin’s work On the Fertilization of Orchids.

Deep time is first introduced on p. 77–78, in a discussion of weathering and the fact that scientists who study rocks “ … tell us that once upon a time at least a part of the earth was molten. Later, it cooled into solid rock.” The myth of “stone age” man and his inability to live anywhere but in a cave is also propagated (p. 120).

Strangely, Hunter says the monotremes (mammals that lay reptile-like eggs and suckle their young) are the “lowest” mammals (p. 192). Yet, they are living today, along with supposedly more advanced creatures. This is a glaring lapse of logic that has been used by evolutionists from the beginning. Monotremes are no less ‘evolved’ than marsupials and placentals. They also have several features not found in other (supposedly more primitive?) mammals, like the ability to sense electric fields. He also called the platypus a “duck mole”, which I found humorous.

This is the point at which Hunter explains how he used his discussion of life, from low complexity to high complexity, to introduce evolutionary ideas:

“We have found grades of complexity in plants … So in animal life, from the Protozoa upward, there is constant change toward greater complexity of structure and functions. As an insect is a higher type of life than a protozoan … a fish is a higher type of life than an insect.” (p. 193)

This statement brackets the horse series of fossils, the first evolutionary embellishment in the book and an incorrect and outdated argument. As author Mats Molén said, “The horse series has long been a showcase of evolution. But in reality, this series is the best argument that can be presented against evolution from the fossil record.”5

Geological-history-of-the-horse
four-toed-ancestor-horse

Immediately following this is a section titled The Doctrine of Evolution (p. 194), with this associated figure:

The-evolutionary-tree

We are then treated to yet another false statement:

“Evolution means change, and these groups are believed by scientists to represent stages in complexity of development of life on the earth. Geology teaches that millions of years ago, life was very simple, and that gradually more and more complex forms of life appeared … ” (p. 194)

Note the equivocation. Yes, “evolution” means change, but since creationists also believe in ‘change’, clearly evolution cannot be defined this way. Instead, any definition of evolution needs to include the idea of common ancestry; that is, that enough change over enough time can lead to an explanation of the common ancestry of all things. But that would open up a discussion on the limits to change, which is never allowed. Darwin himself said “I can see no limit to the amount of change”,6 but that is a philosophical position. Anyone can imagine anything they like, but that does not make imagination reality. Thus, the main tenet of evolution is an imaginary position that depends on life being simple enough that it can change infinitely, which is something long since discredited.

Also, note the appeal to ‘science’ here. Geology teaches nothing about biology or history. Secular, naturalistic, materialistic geologists might teach something about deep time or what they imagine happened, but the rocks themselves do not. On this same page, Darwin is called, “the great English scientist, Charles Darwin”. And on p. 253, he’s called “The great Englishman, Charles Darwin.” The hagiography7 is sickening.

Racism

I take no issue with classifying man with animals, vertebrates, mammals, or even primates. But Hunter applies this hierarchical scheme directly to humans and then lapses into outright racist ideas when he says,

“Although anatomically there is a greater difference between the lowest type of monkey and the highest type of ape than there is between the highest type of ape and the lowest savage, yet there is an immense mental gap between monkey and man.” (p. 195)

This is a horrible statement and closely follows Darwin:

“At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropological apes … will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state … and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.”8

Hunter tells an eloquent story about the supposed evolution of man, concluding that the earth is still not entirely civilized. Thus, the order of complexity outlined earlier is applied to humankind:

The Races of Man. – At the present time there exists 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; 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.”

Please note that these terms (Caucasian, Mongoloid, Negroid, etc.) have been rejected by modern anthropologists and geneticists. They have no place in discussions today.

The first hints of white supremacism in the text are found in a quote from a book about how the Greeks took possession of an island from the Italians (although the book is about Sicily and the region under discussion, Poseidonia, is in the Cyclades, the islands to the SE of the Greek mainland):

“They drove the Italian natives back into the distant hills, for the white man’s burden even then included the taking of the desirable things that were being wasted by the incompetent natives … ” (p. 107, emphasis added).

This, bizarrely, is in a section on deforestation. The Greeks got their comeuppance, malaria came, they died, and the forests grew back. It is unclear how the “white man” [sic] were in any way superior to the genetically almost indistinguishable people (“Italians”) they were replacing. This is not the only moralistic environmental tale in A Civic Biology. Yet, even though this is a biology textbook, it was written while the chestnut blight was destroying one of the most important tree species in the US (p. 131). Thus, a discussion of deforestation would have been appropriate without the unnecessary racist overtones. Today, only a small remnant patch of these trees remains, and few people have seen the tree that once dominated the eastern half of the country.

Heredity, Eugenics, and outright lies

Chapter XVII Heredity, Variation, Plant and Animal Breeding is worth discussing at length. The first subheading is Heredity and Eugenics. Hunter’s logic flows from the basics of heredity and variation among individuals. We can trace various traits back to certain ancestors. But, typical of an evolutionist, he jumps from there to attempting to trace all variation and all differences back through an assumed deep time.

Darwin gave us variation and natural selection. De Vries gave us mutation. Artificial selection, selective breeding, selective planting, hybridization, budding, grafting, and asexual propagation are also discussed. Mendel’s work gets favourable mention (pp. 257–259). So far, so good, but he then discusses the development of the many animal breeds and once again bridges into a discussion of people:

“If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection.” P. 261

He introduces eugenics (“well born”, although “good breeding” is another translation), then jumps into the scandalous and fallacious stories of the “Jukes” and the “Kallikaks”. The former was a family from New York that supposedly produced a large number of criminals and other miscreants. The “Kallikaks” (named with a combination of the Greek words for good and bad, kalos and kakos) was a family of notoriously immoral and mentally defective people who supposedly descended from an extramarital affair between a man of good breeding and a “feeble-minded” woman. That man also later married a woman of good, Quaker stock, supposedly producing a parallel lineage of fine and upstanding citizens. Entire books were written about these families. People’s lives were destroyed by this story. But it was entirely fallacious. This is followed by a section titled Parasitism and its Cost to Society. “Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society.” (p. 263). I hope you, as I, find such sentiments to be disgusting.

The Remedy follows. If these were animals, we would cull them. He says we cannot do this with humans, but that we can force the separation of the sexes in asylums (p. 263). No mention is made of sterilization, although this was a central aspect of eugenic policies through the 1960s. Lengthy family trees are provided, indicating which progeny are normal and which are “feeble minded”. But there is no documentation of how these traits were determined. Neither is there any allowance for the effects of nutrition, sexual abuse, or economic opportunity in the respective families. Note that lead and mercury were common ingredients in many medicines and some foods in those days, and these are now known to create mental problems. This is followed by the genealogy of the famous Great Awakening preacher Jonathan Edwards and the many notable people who came from the union of his parents over the course of three generations.

feeblemindedness

But all of this is washed away by a discussion of euthenics; that is, improving the environment in order to improve the individual (p. 264). This gives away the game. What if one were to take Emma Wolverton (aka Deborah “Kallikak”) and instead of placing her in an institution for her entire life, allow her to grow up in a wealthy family with plenty of food, good doctors, and a nurturing environment? She would appear no different from anyone else. How do we know this? Because this is exactly what happened when they removed her from her original family and institutionalized her. Everything boiled down to her environment. Nothing could be attributed to her genes.

One of several family trees purporting to show the inheritance of “feeblemindedness”, whatever that is (p. 262).

Conclusions

Hunter’s A Civic Biology should never have been accepted by the citizens of Tennessee. A large portion of the population was denigrated as inferior to the others. Another sizeable portion was refused a voice in their religious convictions. The book advocated the direct violation of God-given civil rights, which the people of the USA fought hard to establish and protect. They, especially African Americans, but also poor European “whites”, were still fighting to establish those rights more firmly; and A Civic Biology was acting to thwart all their efforts. The information presented in the book was thoroughly slanted and highly opinionated. This should have been known at the time, but there is no evidence that anyone actually tried to debunk the material. Instead, early 20th century marketing and the repackaging of controversial ideas under the guise of ‘science’ pulled the wool over their eyes.

References and notes

  1. Hunter, G.W., A Civic Biology: presented in problems, American Book Company (New York, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago), 1914; books.google.com/books?id=-ylCAAAAIAAJ. Return to text.
  2. ACLU: The American Civil Liberties Union was and is a prominent organization that has been involved in many court cases over the years. They are reputably on the side of civil rights, but their net influence has been to erode the rights of Christians in favor of secularists. Return to text.
  3. Shapiro, A.R., Trying Biology: the Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2013; google.com/books/edition/Trying_Biology/ZAtXMUqffF8C. Return to text.
  4. Ptomaines are a group of foul-smelling alkaloid chemicals that contain at least one amine (–NH2) group. Notorious examples are putrescine and cadaverine. They are a byproduct of the decomposition of organic matter and were once thought to be the source of food poisoning. Today, we understand that food-bourne illnesses are caused by bacteria and viruses. Return to text.
  5. Molén, M., The evolution of the horseJournal of Creation 23(2):59–63, 2009; creation.com/the-evolution-of-the-horse. Return to text.
  6. “Slow though the process of selection may be, if feeble man can do much by his power of artificial selection, I can see no limit to the amount of change to the beauty and infinite complexity of the coadaptations between all organic beings, one with another and with their physical conditions of life, which may be effected in the long course of time by nature’s power of selection.” From Darwin, C., The Origin of Species, second British edition (1860), page 109; darwin-online.org.uk/Variorum/1860/1860-109-dns.html. Return to text.
  7. Traditionally, a hagiography is the biography of a saint (hagios in Greek). Since such accounts were heavily embellished with nonhistorical material, today a ‘hagiography’ is a negative term used to denote that the story has been inflated or is otherwise inaccurate. Return to text.
  8. Darwin, C., The Descent of Man, 1871. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Readers’ comments

Norman P.
A fascinating insight, and reminder of the ignorance of the recent past - a past which in terms of biblical standards we usually regard with nostalgia! The spiritual understanding of the Puritans on most theological fronts remained impeccable. This leads me to conclude the divide between the worldly and the spiritual was as real then as it is now, despite the fact that 'Christian' societies of those days lived more by biblical morality. And whilst great strides were being made in science and medicine, philosophical interpretation of the Bible (Modernism) was destroying churches from within, so that much was becoming hollow and hypocritical. Even so, I believe we should beware of taking a stand on the shifting sands of 'political correctness': the Bible's version is timeless, being based on the love of God, spiritually discerned. As Jewish society needed to discover in Jesus' day, 'you must be born again!'
Mel M.
Actually I think the Caucasian,Mongoloid and Negroid groups are indeed still used in some anthropology areas. They’re used to describe skeletal classifications.
Robert Carter
I would not be surprised if some were still holding onto these outdated terms, even using them for spurious comparisons of supposed skeletal differences, but the tide is swiftly changing directions and most scholars view the historic use of these words with regret.
Decker M.
This was an interesting article, and one more people should know about! We can allow other people to believe what they believe, even if it is wrong. We don’t have to attack other peoples’ beliefs just because we don’t agree with them.

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