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Trying Biology

The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools

Trying Biology

The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools

In Trying Biology, Adam R. Shapiro convincingly dispels many conventional assumptions about the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial. Most view it as an event driven primarily by a conflict between science and religion. Countering this, Shapiro shows the importance of timing: the Scopes trial occurred at a crucial moment in the history of biology textbook publishing, education reform in Tennessee, and progressive school reform across the country. He places the trial in this broad context—alongside American Protestant antievolution sentiment—and in doing so sheds new light on the trial and the historical relationship of science and religion in America.
For the first time we see how religious objections to evolution became a prevailing concern to the American textbook industry even before the Scopes trial began. Shapiro explores both the development of biology textbooks leading up to the trial and the ways in which the textbook industry created new books and presented them as “responses” to the trial. Today, the controversy continues over textbook warning labels, making Shapiro’s study—particularly as it plays out in one of America’s most famous trials—an original contribution to a timely discussion.

200 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

History: American History

History of Science

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Library Science and Publishing: Publishing

Religion: Religion and Society


“If you have an interest in the antievolution movement in the USA you will want to read this book.”

Ian Paulsen | Guardian

“A gripping, moving, and enlightening story.”

Carla Nappi | New Books in Education

“This is a fascinating history, painstakingly documented and thought provoking. . . . [R]eaders of this book will learn a lot, not just about the trial but about the deep roots of social trends and public policies that still hold sway in 2013. Highly recommended.”

D. A. Rintoul, Kansas State University | Choice

“An important book about the history of evolutionary pedagogy? Certainly. A meticulously detailed piece of historical research. Ditto.”

Simon Underdown | Times Higher Education Supplement

"This thoughtful study explains more than we have known before about the importance of the Scopes trial to the history of science and religion."


“An interesting and helpful read. . . . Shapiro’s account has certainly caused me to rethink this infamous trial and its influence on evolution education.”

Aaron J. Sickel, Ohio University | Science Education

“[A] masterful reevaluation of the infamous ‘Monkey Trial’ of 1925. . . . Engagingly written. . . . Beyond its important insights into how issues in the textbook industry and matters of curriculum policy shaped the Scopes trial, Trying Biology offers an oft-needed reminder of the need to interrogate critically the claims of historical actors.”

David Mislin | History of Education Quarterly

“In Trying Biology, Shapiro offers an indispensable new argument about the crucial issues at play in evolution education in the 1920s. . . . Historians will be well advised to consider Shapiro’s careful argument about the relationships between science, education, and textbook publishing.”

Adam Laats, Binghamton University, SUNY | Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

“Insightful and well-researched.”

Rick Ostrander, Cornerstone University | American Historical Review

[Shapiro’s] detailed account of the making of Hunter’s New Civic Biology gives us new ways to think about public science in a capitalist democracy.

Stephen P. Weldon | Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences

“Shapiro’s approach is profound as it can and should be applied to other episodes in the history of science. The message is a concise and convincing contribution to the history of science.”

Elizabeth D. Jones, University College London | Quarterly Review of Biology

"Shapiro has provided valuable additional information concerning the Scopes trial, its origins, and its impact. Any student of the evolution controversy in America will profit greatly from his discussion of the central role played by those involved with the publication and marketing of biology textbooks during the early twentieth century."

George E. Webb | Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"Shapiro is wonderfully insightful on school antievolutionism and the history of biology textbooks. He rightly argues that the Scopes Trial was not inevitable, and in some sense was a historical accident. This is excellent work that undercuts the notion that religion and science are in necessary, eternal conflict."


“Building on exhaustive research and probing into such diverse enterprises as textbook production and marketing, public education, and state-level politics, Adam R. Shapiro has situated the Scopes trial within a much broader context than any scholar before him. Trying Biology also demonstrates how ideologues have used differing interpretations of the Scopes trial to advance their agendas. By situating the trial within this much broader framework, the author has significantly enlarged our understanding of the conversations between religion and science in twentieth-century America.”

Randall Balmer, author of The Making of Evangelicalism

“For decades scholars have been debating how the Scopes trial influenced American biology textbooks. In this meticulously documented and persuasively argued new book, Adam R. Shapiro gives the definitive answer: the antievolution movement that began in the early 1920s had a profound effect on the presentation of evolution; the trial in 1925, very little.”

Ronald L. Numbers, University of Wisconsin–Madison

“How did American children learn about evolution? From biology textbooks, of course. Adam R. Shapiro has provided our first truly historical account of the textbook industry and its complicated relationship to evolution instruction in public schools. As Shapiro shows, the Scopes trial was as much about the texts that we read—and the schools where we read them—as it was about Charles Darwin or the Book of Genesis. Shapiro’s study is itself a textbook case of careful historical analysis, casting new light on an old controversy. His own readers will surely get a fresh view of the controversy over evolution, and of American education writ large.”

Jonathan Zimmerman, New York University

“Adam Shapiro’s Trying Biology provides a useful corrective to the stale argument that the Scopes Trial and the antievolution movement in general embodied an eternal conflict between science and religion. Shapiro’s account of the battles among textbook authors, publishers, salesmen, and school boards not only adds welcome nuance to our understanding of the trial’s causes and consequences, it provides an enlightening and even entertaining look at the crucial role that money and politics have played in the evolution of biology teaching in America. Trying Biology belongs on the short shelf of essential books on Scopes and antievolutionism.”

Jeffrey P. Moran, author of American Genesis: The Antievolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science

Trying Biology is a wonderfully lucid exploration of how the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial became one of the signature events in the history of science and religion in America. In its focus on how textbooks of biology were published, marketed, sold, and adopted in various political contexts, it provides us with a provocative and novel understanding of how textbooks shaped public understanding of biology and continue to be a political flashpoint of biology education in America. It will prove essential reading for anyone interested in the history of biology, in American education, and in the complex relations between science and religion in America.”

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, University of Florida

"In Trying Biology, Shapiro re-examines the circum­stances that led to the Scopes Trial by exploring the evolution of high school biology curricula...He elaborately shows how and why a multipronged battle over public school education, rural-urban tensions, and the politics of textbook publishing was recast as an inevitable conflict between the secular, scientific worldview and revealed religion...Shapiro's fresh explora­tion of the Scopes Trial offers a new approach to understand the interaction between science and religion in public life."

Joseph Satish Vedanayagam | Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences

Table of Contents


chapter one 1
Beyond Science and Religion: The Scopes Trial in Historical Context

chapter two
The Textbook Trust and State Adoption

chapter three
Textbooks and Their Makers: Authors, Editors, Salesmen, and Readers

chapter four
Civic Biology and the Origins of the Antievolution Movement

chapter five
How Scopes Was Framed

chapter six
The Evolution of the New Civic Biology

chapter seven
Biology Textbooks in an Era of Science and Religion

chapter eight
Losing the Word: Measuring the Impact of Scopes


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