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from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1998

More Fake "History" from Glencoe

William J. Bennetta

Glencoe continues to print "history" that has been conjured out of thin air. In an American-history text titled The American Journey, Glencoe's writers teach this fiction about Lewis and Clark:

Certainly, the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition had little idea of what distances and difficulties they would face on their trek. Nor could they imagine that they would come face-to-face with unknown species of flora (plants) and fauna (animals).

The truth is that they didn't have to "imagine" it. They knew it. One of the major purposes of their expedition -- declared in the instructions that they had received from President Jefferson -- was to discover plants and animals. And when Meriwether Lewis (during his preparations for the expedition) traveled to Philadelphia to consult that city's scientific savants, he sought some instruction in describing and preserving biological specimens. The man who instructed him was Benjamin Smith Barton, the author of the first American textbook of botany.

Reading further in Glencoe's fake "history," we learn what happened after the men of the Corps of Discovery set forth:

Huge grizzly bears were a frequent threat to the party. The annoyed explorers gave the bear its scientific name: Ursus arctos horribilis, or "terrible bear."

That is nonsense. The grizzly bear is a North American form of the brown bear, a species that is widely distributed here and in Eurasia. The scientific name of the brown bear, Ursus arctos, was conferred in 1758 by Carolus Linnaeus. The first publication in which a grizzly bear was treated and named as a separate species was issued in 1815 by the American naturalist George Ord -- not by Lewis and Clark. Ord called the grizzly Ursus horribilis.

During the next 100 years or so, about 100 other names were published by scientists who contended that the grizzly population consisted of many discrete species or subspecies. Today, however, the prevailing view among taxonomists is that there are only three types of grizzly, and that all of them are subspecies of Ursus arctos. These subspecies are Ursus arctos horribilis (whose range extends through much of western Canada and the western United States), Ursus arctos middendorfi (inhabiting Kodiak Island and some other parts of Alaska) and Ursus arctos nelsoni (which inhabited California and Mexico but is now extinct).

I thank Douglas Long, who is a mammalogist and a staff scientist at the California Academy of Sciences, for helping me to review the scientific literature pertaining to the naming of the grizzly. My information about Meriwether Lewis and Benjamin Smith Barton comes from Undaunted Courage, Stephen E. Ambrose's fine book about the Corps of Discovery.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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