Monday, July 22, 2013

Kids' books on evolution: One atrocious example

I came across this book from 1907 with a tantalizing title:

"Well, well!" I think to myself, "Let's see what Mr. William Trumbull, LL. B. had to say to his children about evolution more than a hundred years ago." I put my feet up, start reading, and am instantly happy that I was not a child of Mr. William Trumbull, LL. B. more than a hundred years ago.

Ooo-eee this thing is dull. Mr. William Trumbull, a Yale-educated lawyer, pontificates like death itself. Here's a sentence from somewhere:
This would appear to be an admirably simple and compact statement of the crowning positive phenomenon of creation, when interpreted in its true evolutionary sense of a gradual development.
Wha?? This is for children? Maybe adult children. Or probably children's books were different in 1907: more dour and soul-crushing than ours today.  

I keep reading. Things get worse. From a modern perspective, Mr. Bill Trumbull's ideas are monstrous, piling up like that mountain of zombies climbing over the wall in World War Z. (You know the scene I'm talking about, yes you do.)

First there's the raging sexism. But you'd expect that from 1907, I guess. Then there's the raging racism. Trumbull says things like:
It seems a far cry from the low bestial nature of an Australian or South African bushman to the god-like intelligence of a Socrates or Plato.
That's right kids, lap it up! Next comes the inevitable eugenics:
We do not begin to go far enough ... eradicating the criminal, the vicious, the parasitic, and the worthless ... We must view the world as a sort of huge stock farm, and rigorously adopt for our ideal toward the race the scientific methods of stock breeding.
This pile of zombies
is a wicked handy metaphor.
Bushmen of the world, you've been warned: Trumbull is coming at you with a vasectomy.

And of course there's the cultural arrogance. The second half of the book is a review of world religions, starting with those "we see in Africa to-day ... the lowest of all forms of existing religions," and moving through others sprinkling various smug judgments all around. Finally, Christianity:
is the highest type in the evolution of religion, inasmuch as it has taken and gathered up into itself all the perfections of the other religions of the world.

Oh, William Trumbull, LL. B., what are we going to do with you?

I gamely remind myself that Willy is only reflecting the prevailing attitudes of his his time. I plow on, setting aside the bad writing, the sexism, the racism, the eugenics, and the arrogance. What's left?

Here's his story in a nutshell. 
1. Humans evolved through natural selection.
2. As they evolved, they first had crude, incorrect religions and then discovered Christianity.
3. Altruistic behavior is important in human survival.
4. Humans were at first altruistic only toward their family or clan, like animals, but later widened the altruistic circle to nations or races.
5. Christianity teaches humans the next evolutionary step, which is altruism toward all people.
6. God was behind the whole magilla.
OK, fair enough. It's not the worst merging of creationist and evolutionary ideas, and it celebrates altruism, which is quite nice in a children's story. Along the way old Billy also hints at some ideas that seem way before their time: environmentalism, the social construction of race, and even memes.

Ah, William, in the end I find myself a bit fond of you. There you lie under your huge disgusting pile of zombies, just a father who wants to pass his world view on to his kids. This is what I try to do every day. Bit of a different world view, and different zombies, but whatever, you get the idea.

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