Gairdner B. Moment, a professor of biology at Goucher College from 1932 to 1970, was a textbook pioneer, the first author to use the term “Darwinian Synthesis,” [1] and the rare author in the 1940s to forward ecological awareness, not eugenic management, as the purpose of his profession. He did this with the publication General Biology for Colleges in 1942.

But then World War II happened. Biology, following physics and chemistry, muscularized its curriculum and began reasserting its claim as the central agent in the maximization of natural resources, including human resources, in a newly interconnected world.

Moment was caught in the wave and taken by its undertow.

An almost revolutionary in 1942 on the order of Rachel Carson or Marston Bates, by the 1960s, Moment devolved into a reactionary critic of the emerging culture of environmentalism he had helped spawn, and is remembered today as the scientist who wanted grizzly bears eliminated.

GENERAL BIOLOGY FOR COLLEGE (1942)

As a young teacher, Moment briefly considered writing a book about his favorite marine worm, but was convinced by his mentor at Goucher, Dr William H. Longley, to write something a bit more commercial. In tone and presentation, the resulting volume, General Biology for College (1942), stood in dramatic contrast to competing texts of the period. Moment’s textbook, unlike his progressionist and still highly eugenic competitors’ textbooks, presented the biological world of plants and animals through an ecological frame. It placed humans within that frame, but pointedly cast our species as a minor player in a web of life. [2]

Moment said the first edition of his textbook was “written in a mood of rebellion.” In a bit of revisionism, he would frame this rebellion in 1950 as one against a curriculum that presents a “perfected picture” of the world but “leaves students unable to state why the chromosomes are believed to be the physical basis of heredity” (Moment 1950, v). But his 1942 text suggests he originally saw his rebellion more as a reaction against a view of biology as a discipline focused on managing and maximizing natural resources for the benefit of human beings. Heredity, the supposed mastery of which had fueled biology’s claims to cultural authority since the rediscovery of Mendel’s work at the turn of the century, was dramatically downplayed relative to competing texts. All the claims made by eugenicists were dismissed with this slight: “In one sense, heredity is predominant. We develop into humans, not starfish or lemurs, because of our heredity.”

Moment’s first edition was the rare biology textbook from the period that didn’t even index eugenics.

In its place, Moment promoted ecology and respect for complex biological interconnections. His humble take on the state of evolutionary theory and its meaning, and an associated lack of surety regarding the relative importance of heredity, led to a textbook that simultaneously echoed an older style, specifically that of Alfred Kinsey (see: “If Kinsey’s Textbook Could Talk”), and foreshadowed a style that would gain great popularity two decades later.

If Moment stayed on this track he’d have been heralded as a sage.

But, as we know, things happened between Moment’s 1942 text and his 1950 revision. While it is commonly believed that the Nazi’s put the final nail in the coffin of eugenics, scholarship suggests otherwise. In fact, biology textbook authors, particularly on the college level, doubled down on eugenics in years immediately following the war (see: “Eugenics in 20th Century College Biology Textbooks”). Moment, sadly, was no exception. Though never a fan of eugenics in its raw early twentieth century form, Moment, even if only grudgingly, introduced the topic in his 1950 text. More importantly, he joined his colleagues in embracing the recently articulated modern synthesis not simply as a more soundly based theory of organic evolution, which it was and is, but as a platform for promoting the biologist as an active, expert and necessary manager of populations of living organisms.

GENERAL BIOLOGY FOR COLLEGES, SECOND EDITION (1950)

Moment introduced eugenics in the 1950 edition of General Biology for Colleges at the close of its chapter on heredity. It would remain an indexed feature in his textbooks through Biology – A Full Spectrum, which he co-authored with Goucher colleague Helen M. Habermann and published in 1973. To be fair, Moment’s presentation was far from fulsome. After defining the topic as one that should have “the active sympathy of all men of good-will” (560), he disclaims that claim immediately, asking, “[h]ow are we to judge what the desirable human traits are?” Yet the inclusion of eugenics was notable enough to be included as a promoted feature in text’s introduction (Moment 1950, v).

But it is not the introduction of eugenics specifically that signals Moment’s evolution from a minister to manager, but his embrace of populational thinking as operational, a foundation for social policy and political action, to be consciously guided by the professional biologist.

Populational thinking is central to the modern synthesis, a theory of evolution that emerged in the years just prior to Moment’s first edition and then fully articulated in the years just before his second edition. The modern synthesis rescued Darwin’s theory of natural selection by incorporating it into a broader theory that focused on populations as the objects of evolutionary change. It was plants and animals, or more specifically the variety and frequency of their genes, not individuals, that were acted upon by natural selection and consequently evolved over time.

In 1942, before the populational thinking of the modern synthesis fully resolved as a potentially actionable ideology, and before the re-embrace of eugenics by biology textbook authors, ecology was dismissed as descriptive and vaguely unmanly, an appreciation of nature, not a basis for action upon it.

Again, perhaps only by omission, Moment’s first edition can be read as an early version of a trend that would find full flower in the 1960s with the publication of BSCS Green Version, authored principally by Marston Bates [3]. But in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, the developing Cold War, with all its associated material and cultural incentives pulling toward scientific management, relevance required Moment to adapt, which, foundationally, required him to define ecology in more activist terms. As he did here:

A new set of complex relationships appear when plants and animals are regarded not as isolated individuals, but as groups of individuals. To clarify these new relationships is one of the major jobs of ecology … How can the population of fish in a lake, deer in a forest, or oysters in a bay be maintained at a maximum with simultaneously maximal ‘harvesting’? … Do human societies have anything to learn from societies of ants or termites? (Moment 1950, 53).

Ironically, the promotion of ecology as foundational to resource maximization was a throwback to a Progressive era view of the purpose of biology, so well described by Samuel P. Hays in Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency.

Divorced from eugenics, applied populational thinking can sound relatively benign, bureaucratic, and to our pandemic-tuned ears, even practical.

Knowledge of populations is of great importance in the formation of life insurance and retirement plans, making various predictions useful in government and business, in the control of epidemics which are the rapid spread of a population of parasites through a population of hosts, and in conservation (Moment 1950, 211).

But distancing biological management from its effects on the individual, whether animal, plant or human, opened a path lined with dangers, or in Moment’s case, absurd and almost silly soap boxes.

MOMENT MISSES HIS MOMENT

Like the proverbial egg laid at a roof’s apex, Moment could have rolled down either side of the developing ideological split developing in the 1940s between biology as a manager and improver of species and biology as a minister of the need for respect of biological interrelationships and respect for ungovernable complexity. Moment’s 1942 textbook was decades ahead of its time. Had he not got caught in the Cold War wave, he might today be remembered alongside notable pioneers of ecology-based biology like Marston Bates and Rachel Carson.

Unfortunately, Moment ended his public career in the late 1960s and early 1970s with a series of “get off my lawn” essays which staked a view contrary to endangered species advocates and anti-managerial ecologists then in ascendance [3]. A terrible irony and shame, as the worm-loving Moment of 1942 was a founding member of this tribe, and helped set it on its mission.

Footnotes

[1] The “synthesis” Moment described in the first edition of his General Biology for Colleges (1942) was, as those familiar with the history know, necessarily incomplete. Most of the texts that would collectively define the term were yet to be published. By the second edition of General Biology for Colleges, published eight years later in 1950, Th. Dobzhansky’s Genetics and the Origin of Species (1936) had been joined by Ernst Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species (1942) and G. G. Simpson’s Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944), and would soon be joined by G. Ledyard. Stebbins’ Variation and Evolution in Plants (1950) to complete the newly constricted theory.

[2] For more on Marston Bates, see: “Marston Bates’ Moment of Zen.” For a full history of biology textbooks in the twentieth century, see: Ladouceur, Ronald P. (2008). “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks.” Journal of the History of Biology 41:3, 435-471.

[3] See for example: “Bears: The Need for a New Sanity in Wildlife Conservation”.

References

Gairdner Bostwick Moment. Open Library (accessed June 26, 2021).

Ladouceur, Ronald P. “Ella Thea Smith and the Lost History of American High School Biology Textbooks.” Journal of the History of Biology 41:3, 435-471. 2008.

Memorial: Gairder Bostwick Moment ’28. Princeton Alumni Weekly (accessed June 26, 2021).

Moment, Gairdner B. General Biology for Colleges. New York: Appleton-Century Company. 1942.

–, General Biology for Colleges • Second Edition. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company. 1950.

–, “Bears: The Need for a New Sanity in Wildlife Conservation BioScience,” Vol. 18, No. 12 (Dec., 1968), pp. 1105-1108.

Moment, Gairdner B., Helen M. Habermann. Biology: A Full Spectrum. Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Company. 1973.

Romero, Jess. “The Scientist Who Wanted Grizzly Bears Eliminated.” JSTOR Daily. (Oct. 16, 2020).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment