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This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, May-June 1998.

Recalling the Portland Hoax

William J. Bennetta

When Anne C. Westwater reviewed Holt's high-school book Essentials of Biology, in our January-February issue, she noted that "the caption for figure 7-2 says, 'The characteristics children share with their parents are inherited traits,' but the figure portrays a father and three children, with no mother in sight!" Soon after the review was published, a reader in Virginia remarked to me, during a telephone conversation, that Westwater's comment seemed too picky. After all, he said, high-school students know that every child has a mother and a father, even if only one parent is shown in a picture.

Perhaps, but there is another issue here. Though all (or nearly all) high-school students know that a child must have two parents, many students don't grasp that both parents influence the child's inherited characteristics. Indeed, many students hold a contrary view because they have absorbed the popular notion that a child's traits are derived chiefly or entirely from its father. This superstition is well established in folklore, and it still is widely regarded as fact among the uneducated. It reflects the ancient belief that reproduction is governed by a sort of mystical "force" that resides in the male and is conveyed in his "seed," while the female merely serves as a vessel or medium for converting the "seed" into a new individual.

Sad to say, the same superstition has even been promoted to educators in the guise of "science." This happened about nine years ago, when the municipal school district of Portland, Oregon, became entangled in a scam.

In 1989 the Portland district adopted a collection of "reference and resource" documents called African-American Baseline Essays, which were aimed at professional educators. These documents allegedly recounted some African history and some history of blacks in America, but they were bogus. They were the products of a hoax engineered by a consultant named Asa G. Hilliard III, whom the Portland district had hired to do some work pertaining to a "desegregation plan."

The hoax was fairly successful. The Portland district not only accepted the Baseline Essays as curriculum materials but also offered them for sale nationally. As a result, the Baseline Essays were adopted by districts in several other cities, for use in formulating "Afrocentric" curricula.

One of the bogus essays, African and African-American Contributions to Science and Technology, was the work of Hunter Havelin Adams III, a crackpot. A note on the cover of the Science and Technology essay said that Adams was a "Research Scientist" who had designed equipment for a "particle accelerator" at the Argonne National Laboratory, but that claim was false. Both the "science" and the "history" that Adams presented in his Science and Technology essay were absurd, since they revolved around magic, supernatural powers, numerology, and weird fantasies about the ancient Egyptians. Adams was especially fond of an Egyptian whom he called "Imhotep, the world's first master multidisciplinarian," and he gave this account of one of Imhotep's attainments:

[Imhotep] . . . developed the first theory of heredity around 2850 B.C. He said a child acquires qualities of the parent through the semen of the father; this was the basis of the royal family's selective marriage policies.

Adams didn't tell -- perhaps because he didn't know -- that the notion which he ascribed to Imhotep was dead wrong. Anyone who had not studied genetics would surely infer, from Adams's presentation, that Imhotep's alleged "theory of heredity" was correct, and that a child's "qualities" are all derived from its father's semen.

We must hope that, by now, the Portland district and the other districts that adopted the Baseline Essays have acquired competent curriculum supervisors in history and science, have learned to get knowledgeable appraisals of curriculum materials, and have consigned the Baseline Essays to the trash can.


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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