Abstract

The main objective of this paper was to analyze gender representation in Mexican elementary education materials from 1960 to the present, particularly on the topic of human evolution, as this is a fundamental subject for the understanding of our ancestry as a species, and for its relationship with questions about human nature. Using gender as a category and an approach that included both qualitative and quantitative methods, a comparison of three generations of textbooks for elementary school and “monographs” was carried out. The results show a deeply entrenched and systemic problems of gender representation in Mexican pedagogical tools past and present.

1. Introduction

Today, Mexico is a deeply troubled and suffering country, in part because of its extreme economic inequality and the seizure of various political institutions by organized crime. In fact, the news reverberating throughout Mexico as I write this article is that three film students kidnapped last month in Jalisco state were found to have been tortured, killed and their bodies dissolved in acid. Truly horrific.

Besides the physical violence, Mexicans have historically been subjected to a terrible practice of making those marginalized invisible and inequality something natural. Based on these complex political, historical, social, economic and idiosyncratic factors, I want to focus on cultural artifacts related to education, such as textbooks and other pedagogical materials, to address this kind of inequality with respect to women.

Today, there is a vast literature on the challenges faced by teachers on how best to educate heterogeneous school populations. In 1856, the renowned British scientist Herbert Spencer wrote the essay entitled “What knowledge is of most worth?,” yet at present, educators continue to deal with this issue: what kind of knowledge gets told? Whose knowledge gets told? In this sense, textbooks are the main actors in the drama of educating a country’s inhabitants. What is also very important from a critical perspective is the fact that textbooks are not neutral repositories of knowledge. According to Shardakova and Pavlenko (2004), they are rather an important genre that functions to offer students a sanctioned version of human knowledge in a particular area. Thus, different discourses are different versions of “truth” and “reality” which are not universally received in the same way.

This view presents the teaching-learning process as a social and discursive medium, emphasizing the fact that those in power oftentimes do the work for the rest of the citizens by offering them certain identity options and leaving others “unimaginable.” “Representations contained in textbooks provide a legitimacy or dominant status for the groups represented” (Sleeter and Grant, 2011). The importance of textbooks to build and consolidate national identities has been broadly discussed (Ahier, 1990; Ferree and Hall, 1996; Soysal, 1998; Shardakova and Pavlenko, 2004; Bukh, 2007; Carretero, et al., 2013). However, school history has been traditionally regarded as the primary place for students to acquire and cultivate a sense of national identity and heritage, thus much of the research on identity options has been conducted on history textbooks, and mainly from an ethnological point of view regarding minorities. In this paper, I want to look at natural sciences textbooks, focusing particularly on evolutionary theory since it is a fundamental topic to provide students with not only the fundamental basis of modern biology, but also a narrative of human history of who “we” are and where “we” came from.

Certain studies, such as the one conducted by Shardakova and Pavlenko (2004) which used poststructuralist theory and critical discourse analysis, suggest that educational materials have to be congruent with students’ contexts to be of any use. If students do not feel identified with their learning material (due to decontextualization, misrepresentation, stereotyping and oversimplification of topics) several negative attitudes might appear:

  • 1. 

    Feelings of marginalization

  • 2. 

    Ideological conflicts

  • 3. 

    Racial and gender biases

  • 4. 

    Expressions of hostility, parody, exaggeration or mockery towards the materials

  • 5. 

    Resistance to the learning process

  • 6. 

    Rejection of the particular version of reality given to them

The importance of bias in textbooks has been a concern, at least in Europe and North America, for at least four decades (Harper, 2012). However, there are no studies on gender representation fairness in natural sciences textbooks in Mexico. This research is an attempt to on the one hand show the importance of and awaken interest in the subject and on the other, to look at the manufactured nature of textbooks to establish whether the concept of evolution is a gendered one, ignoring, misrepresenting or excluding women.

1.1 Gender Studies and Women in Mexico

For the last few decades, it has been established that a mere handful of women choose to enter careers that have been traditionally viewed as men’s work (Deboer 1986). Also, according to Bazler and Simonis, “labeling and socialization processes that relegate women to stereotypical roles may severely deter them from becoming functionally competent and autonomous human beings” (1991, p. 353). Certainly, textbooks, as the primary vehicle of the teaching-learning process contribute to both this disparity and the not-at-all optimal development of women in society.

Let us now discuss women in Mexico. The population of this country is nearly 120 million people, of whom 51.4% are women.1 According to OXFAM2, only 4.3% of the Mexican active population are women. Only 10% of women have access to land ownership. Maternal mortality among indigenous women is 6 times higher than the national rate, reaching levels similar to those of African countries with less dynamic economies. In its 2013 Gender Gap Report, the World Economic Forum stated that México occupies 83rd place out of 135 countries.

Regarding the safety of Mexican women, 22,482 women were killed in the 32 states of the country in the last ten years (2007–2016).3 That is, on average, the occurrence of a violent death of a girl, young or adult woman every four hours. “The main causes were by mutilation, suffocation, drowning, hanging or being beheaded, burned, stabbed or shot.”4 According to National Institute of Statistics and Geography records, the records of violent homicides in the country went from 830 in 2007 to 2,735 in 2016, which presents an increase of 152 percent, making violence against women one of the country’s most significant problems, affecting nearly 7 in every 10 women in private or in public domains. In conclusion, OXFAM suggests that Mexico is one of the 25 most violent countries for women.5

Considering the above, many academics have turned their attention to gender studies or have focused their STS interest on the study of woman both in science and in its related culture to highlight the strong role of visual representations as vehicles for power and ideology, as in this case. The growing interest in the visual side of science has generated a series of theoretical and methodological precepts since the 1990s that have offered new ways of thinking and writing about the history of science, the role of woman in the construction of scientific knowledge, and in its teaching and dissemination.

In general, gender research can be achieved using gender as category, gender as construction and gender as deconstruction (Knudsen, 2005). According to Knudsen, gender as category is the most widespread in textbook research as it allows “thorough quantitative and qualitative analyses of gender, to reveal gender roles and gender-based stereotypes” (2005, p. 70). With gender as construction, textbook researchers focus on how femininity and masculinity are formed by society and its institutions or by discourses, agents, and arenas. Gender as deconstruction is a destabilizing of gender as a binary pair, which is still a relatively new phenomenon in textbook research. This study was performed using gender as category, focusing on the visual representation of women in chapters on Evolutionary Theory and Human Ancestry of Mexican sixth grade textbooks and school monographs from the 1970s to the present, to uncover the story of gender roles in Mexican educational materials on such an important topic.

In this type of gender studies in textbooks, the focus is on qualitative and quantitative analysis of gender roles. That is, the role that both men and women play in different social scenarios (i.e. in public, corporate, institutional, family and private life), which is analyzed to establish whether stereotypes predominate in education, such as women represented as mothers and/or housewives, always in the bosom of family life and men as providers, with activities outside the home (Knudsen 2005). Quantitative analyses provide documentation on the number of men and women presented in textbooks and use categories to bring out various aspects, such as the places where men and women usually carry out their daily activities: outside/inside the home, public/private spheres. They also reveal oppositions such as active/passive, connected to culture/nature, dominant/submissive, autonomous/dependent. In qualitative analysis, the questions the researcher asks may be diverse: what kind of activities stand out in the educational materials for men and women respectively? Are the text and illustrations concordant or do they contradict each other? How did historical changes influence and affect gender roles as they are presented in textbooks? (Knudsen 1984, p. 71). It is important to bear in mind that this type of analysis considers both what is said and what is missing, and that both the text and illustrations tell the story about gender roles.

In this sense, studying what is shown visually in educational materials is a powerful vehicle to obtain information about educational practices and policies, as well as the dominant values and ideology of the periods in which they were written. The influence of textbooks in shaping the perception of students, both of themselves and the world around them, should not be underestimated. Various studies have shown that textbooks, in both their textual and visual content, contribute to the creation and solidification of scientific, historical, national and individual identity as well as civic values (Hyneman et al. 1994; Hurd 2002; Flores and Barahona 2003; Lewis 2008).

Undoubtedly, visual images occupy an important place in the teaching-learning process. They have their own identity and historical value, and the unique properties they transmit (i.e. color, shape, dimension, texture) are of great importance not only for the acquisition of general knowledge, but also for extending the vision of individuals, becoming a fundamental part of our cultural heritage. What is certain is that visual images are not self-explanatory and require associated text to fulfill their role as conveyors of knowledge. The textual explanation of the images directs their interpretation and thus serves as the basis for the desired understanding of concepts, theories and ideas. If a visual image in textbooks lacks explanation, it loses the fundamental tool of communication which is to facilitate knowledge. However, even though images can be extraordinarily valuable epistemic vehicles for the teaching-learning experience, they can also hold no pedagogical or cognitive value and even lead to conceptual errors, prejudices and stereotypical thinking.

Regarding the teaching of science, scientists make their knowledge visible through visual representations even when the information is theoretical or conceptual without an obvious physical form. Perhaps this is a reason why current biology textbooks are full of images. For example, David Krogh’s book Biology has 776 pages, with an average of two images per page, which is approximately 1,552 images (Cruz 2017). This makes it possible to say that students at an early age immerse themselves in a visual culture of biology through representations via these didactic resources. Thus, the analysis of the visual content of textbooks is very important for gender, cultural and other studies.

2. Mexican Educational Materials

2.1 A Post-Revolutionary Pride: Mexican Textbooks

Textbooks are instruction manuals on any field of knowledge, which have a complex network of production, design and ideology. The establishment of compulsory education and the subsequent massification of schooling in different parts of the world led to the printing of standardized texts to enable and homogenize children’s learning. Since the nineteenth century, they have become the main instrument for the Western world’s teaching-learning process, whose history is a surprising example of how knowledge is produced and distributed to non-specialists. In Mexico, controversies over the use of textbooks go back a long way in the history of education and resulted in an entanglement of complex events that finally gave rise in the mid-twentieth century to the current model of Mexican basic education based primarily on the free distribution of textbooks with universal content to children (Torrens and Barahona 2017).

Textbooks represent one of the most powerful documentary sources and possibly the ones with the greatest amount of information about educational practices and policies, as well as the dominant values and ideology of the times in which they were written. The socio-psychological aspect of textbooks is also interesting as regards what different actors expect from them. In the school context, it is generally expected that textbooks provide intellectual rigor, especially when teachers cannot provide it. As textbooks have a peculiar academic status, readers consider them to be verified, authoritative and legitimate sources of prescribed knowledge, which, despite referring to the authors, are taken as “transcendental sources” (Shapiro 2012, p. 41), which is to say that they reflect knowledge agreed upon as the most fundamental without a trace of the person who knows it. This is one reason why textbooks have an enormous authority: their own conception and design overshadows the fallible marks of any human creation. In Mexico, what is particularly evident is the effort to present textbooks as ahistorical objects, not conceived or developed by individuals, but as a product of the state’s social welfare policies. In addition, the free and universal nature of these educational materials in Mexico deepens the idea of circulating and delivering knowledge without authorship to all corners of the country. Not because books lack authors, but because they seem not to matter. What matters is the content, which is the same for every Mexican child, whether living in urban or rural areas and belonging to high, middle or low class, as Mexican books are mandatory, universal and free (Torrens and Barahona 2017).

In the Mexican scenario, in which textbooks are assumed to have an indisputable authority to dictate scientific truths to the non-specialist public, and especially because of their universal character, their writing is even more sensitive, as in general, readers will accept all the information they provide a-critically. Moreover, an educational system that is based on this type of teaching illustrates how pedagogical objectivity is not only thought of as possible, but it is also expected and made normative.

One of the goals of this paper is to show that, as human productions, textbooks are not simply epitomes of the accepted and internalized scientific knowledge both by science and society. We are shaped by our context and the same is true for textbooks; they have the traces of those who thought, designed and wrote them; of the educational policies that underlie them and of ideologies and idiosyncrasies trapped in a certain historical moment. It is undeniable that they are developed from the cultural norms of the communities in which they arise with the purpose of teaching their inhabitants. The intention of this study was to delve into the history of gender, particularly the inclusion of women, in the teaching of evolutionary theory in these and other Mexican educational materials, to contribute a starting point to discuss and diagnose certain needs of textbooks. The author is convinced that, to improve research and knowledge of textbooks, these must be both the object and the result of the research, so it is hoped to have a direct impact on the design and planning of the topic of biological evolution in future materials.

Regarding the history of Mexican textbooks, one major influence on their production in the twentieth century was the Revolution and the Nation-State project that was born afterwards. During the nineteenth century, Mexico began the effort to racially homogenize the country since the ruling elites established that the indigenous world had to be transformed to integrate it into the newly developed project of nation resulting from the Mexican independence at the dawn of the nineteenth century. This complicated enterprise was achieved by establishing what the Mexican type had to be. Some people defended the idea of whitening and homogenization, but liberals underscored the importance of recognizing Mexico as a heterogeneous nation composed of a multitude of indigenous peoples as a fundamental condition to achieve the ideals of independence (Ramírez 1889, p. 191). This recognition of racial diversity made it evident that the Mexican type had to be the brown mestizo which “implied incorporating the mestizo body of the rest of the nation into the indigenous population through breeding and educational acculturation” (López-Beltrán and Deister 2013).

However, behind this ideology with marked political overtones there lay in the nascent Mexican anthropology a discourse opposed to any idea (including polygenism for some, and monogenism for others) that could alter the racial and social hierarchical order that had predominated in Mexico since colonial times. This order considered Europeans as superior, the supremacy of whites over blacks or mestizos, and of men over women (García-Murcia 2017). According to Cházaro (2011), “the notions of racial variety and sexual differentiation in colonial Mexico, had at least parallel lives.” There were cold and wet races such as the Indians who were therefore considered as weak as women. Thus, in power relations, Indians were with respect to Europeans what women were with respect to men. And even though the binary and hierarchical distinction of Indian versus European was shaken by the process of miscegenation that acquired unsuspected dimensions in New Spain (unlike, for example, in the countries of the Southern Cone), breaking “with racial classifications based on the mere color of the skin”, the European concepts of gender and race were soon incorporated into the production of knowledge both in medicine and in physical and medical anthropology (Cházaro 2011).

In Mexico, as in the rest of the Western world, thinking about human ancestry in general, and about the origin of American man, excluded women as an essential part of processes, if not evolutionarily, at least historically. The scientific discourses and the environment in which anthropological studies emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century Mexico was a stage of exclusions “where women, children, Indians and blacks (terms commonly used at the time this story is recorded) were only the object of scientific dissertation to the extent that they could complete a social panorama ordered under certain criteria of normalization, which placed men at the center, especially those considered a superior race: the European type” (García-Murcia 2017, p. 78).

It is in this context that Mexican textbooks were born. During the government of Porfirio Díaz (1884–1911), a certain stability in education was finally achieved after years of mayhem in the country, due to the loss of half of Mexico to the United States, armed conflicts, constant wars between liberals and conservatives, shortage of health care, epidemics and diseases and marked inequality among the population. At the times of Diaz’s government, the preponderant collective thinking was that the Mexican people should oversee their own destiny, thus, during the first years of the 20th century “the interest in the education of the indigenous people grew and was perceived as the only means to integrate them into society. This awareness came maybe too late, when the vast majority (84% in 1900) could not read or write” (de Saldaña 1993), however, the Diaz dictatorship made great progress in unifying education.

In post-revolutionary Mexico, education acquired a new role: in addition to being an instrument of “peace and progress,” it became a banner of democracy and modernization (Torrens and Barahona 2017). However, despite attempts to modernize education by integrating both women and indigenous people, marked inequality between men and women continued, evidenced by the fact that the ages stipulated for primary education at the end of nineteenth century were set from five to twelve for boys and five to ten for girls (Tanck de Estrada 1981). Furthermore, according to the census performed in 1930, there were 2,242,458 children from 6 to 10 years of age, of which only 448,357 were girls attending school.

It was finally in 1959 that the National Commission of Free Textbooks (CONALITEG), was established, mainly to standardize education and prevent school dropout, full absence and illiteracy (which was 42% in 1953), as well as to end discussions on the nature (whether compulsory or not), contents and ideology of the books. On September 1, 1959, President López Mateos declared in his first government report that “in a country of so many disinherited, free primary education involves the granting of textbooks: we have resolved that the Government donate them to the children of Mexico.” The first free universal textbooks appeared in 1960.6 From that year, the Mexican State has overseen the decision-making policies on what children should know, with what values and with what criteria, since the trinity consisting of free, universal and obligatory meant that all students (according to their courses and the curricular subjects), would receive the same materials with the same content. The topic of biological evolution was not contemplated in these first books which were reissued without changes until 1971 (first generation).

The first reform to these free textbooks, as well as to the plans and programs on which they were supported, was carried out under the government of President Luis Echeverría (1970–1976) in 1973. At that time, it was established that the subject of biological evolution was fundamental for the teaching of Natural Sciences, thus appearing with a universal and mandatory character for all Mexican children who attended sixth grade of primary school. These books remained in circulation practically unchanged from 1974 until the Educational Reform of 1993 (second generation). In accordance with the modernizing discourse of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994), the Program for Educational Modernization was proposed in the educational arena. This program contained a diagnosis of the country’s educational situation, which served as a basis for substantive structural change. The educational model implied radical changes in the structure and innovation of practices through influencing educational content, teacher training and updating, the articulation of the different educational levels, the integration of basic education in a single cycle that included preschool, primary and secondary education, raising the quality of education by reducing backwardness and decentralizing the education system (Barahona et al. 2014). The sixth-grade program included central aspects of evolutionary theory that were reflected in the resulting textbooks. These new materials explained in more depth the origin of the Earth, transformation of ecosystems, evidence of evolution, geological eras, Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle, natural selection and adaptation, and finally, human evolution (Barahona et al. 2014).

Textbooks from this Program for Educational Modernization again remained in circulation practically unchanged from 1999 until 2009 (third generation). During the presidency of Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006–2012) there was another reform, the Comprehensive Reform of Secondary Education (RIES), which began in 2009 for the first and sixth grades of primary school. In this Reform, the organization of the subjects remained the same, but the contents changed profoundly. In the case of biological evolution, the topic was reduced from more than sixty to fourteen pages, limiting its teaching to fossils as evidence of the past of life on Earth, and the adaptation of the species to the environment. It also removed completely the section on Human Evolution, constituting thus a great setback both in the programs and in the books that were and are still being produced (Barahona et al. 2014).

Today, universal and free textbooks in Mexico still occupy a fundamental position in basic education. Some 2.7 million copies of each title are published each year. For example, if one considers that a book that has been published for the last 14 years, as is the case of the natural science textbook for the third year of primary school, has been used by 37.8 million Mexican children (equivalent to 35% of the current population), we can have an idea of the great impact that the renewal of the natural sciences curriculum would represent for Mexico.

2.2 A Peculiar Mexican Educational Material: School Monographs

Another of the most important educational materials commonly used in Mexico are the locally called Monografías escolares (School Monographs) which, as its etymology suggests are documents that deal with a specific topic, both in relation with the curricular content of basic Mexican education (science, history, geography, civic education), and also to the relevant affairs for children’s daily life (farm animals, public services, sexuality, intrafamilial violence and drug abuse, to name a few). According to RAF Editorial Group, there are more than nine hundred topics addressed in school monographs (Cruz 2017). These pedagogical resources, very specific to Mexico, are thin sheets of 31 cm × 23 cm paper, presenting colorful visual images in one side and the text associated with them on the other. Monographs are of very low cost and wide distribution and are targeted at children aged 6 to 15 which comprises approximately 24,500,000 Mexican children.

The visual discourse of these materials is based on the use of different types of representations of natural and social phenomena such as drawings, diagrams and figures which, according to Perini (2012) have a high pedagogical value mainly because different visible characteristics can be used to represent different types of properties. Most of the representations used in monographs are drawings, diagrams and composite diagrams (a fusion of drawings and diagrams). These representations usually lack in-depth details, which, according to Fyfe and Law (1988) help students not to get lost in information that might not be relevant for their specific curricular training, as it is necessary for the student to focus on the most visible and important features of each topic to make sense of it (Cruz 2017).

Monographs date back to the first half of the twentieth century. At first, they were thought of as an important didactic resource since most Mexican children were living in poverty or had some sort of scarcity, which is why many did not have access to libraries or books. Thus, monographs were (and still are) the main and sometimes only vehicle to conduct basic research on various topics.

Although monographs are independently edited and their contents are neither reviewed nor supervised by the State or any official agency, their presence and circulation has always been considered a common good. They were constantly updated until the decade of 1970–1980. Currently, monographs are obsolete as communication devices not only because they cannot compete with Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) which many Mexican children do not have access to, but because many of the images used in these pedagogical resources date back from the 1970s and are still in use today with minimum or no changes at all. Regarding the visual representation of the topic of human evolution, human ancestry and human variation, the images are reminiscent of the late eighteenth century, when the hierarchies between the sexes and the scientific race theories were indissociable from the visual apparatus used to represent human varieties, as will be shown in the next section.

3. Women in Mexican Educational Materials

Janet Browne (2009) has shown the importance of looking at non-scientific realms, both textual and non-textual to understand how a scientific concept, theory or idea meets society. In this paper we are concerned with the subject of biological evolution as it is the core of biology, since the great diversity of phenomena and events that occur in the living world only make sense when they are approached from an evolutionary perspective. It is also concerned with the power and unique authority of images to help students build their understanding of the world, their identity and to facilitate their social relationships in their contexts. In other words, the power of images to bring visible the invisible and to “imagine” for the students. Taking into account that according to Shardakova and Pavlenko (2004) “misrepresentation, stereotyping, and oversimplification of these imaginary worlds could lead to cross-cultural miscommunication, frustration, offence, and conflict, as well as to resistance from students” it is of much importance and interest to analyze those images related to the subject of biological evolution in Natural Sciences textbooks through gender studies, using gender as category, especially since the topic of human ancestry is concerned with the meaning of being human.

3.1 Women in Textbooks

The topic of human evolution in current primary textbooks (corresponding to the 2009 Reform) is not addressed. Not only is there no chapter devoted to it, as in the books corresponding to the 1973 and 1993 Reforms, but there is not a single allusion to the human being. Therefore, the two prior generations of primary textbooks were used for the present analysis.

3.1.1 Women in Textbooks from 1974 to 1999

The chapter on evolutionary theory of the second generation of free and universal Natural Science textbooks for the sixth year of primary school corresponding to the Educational Reform of 1973 and that were in use until 1999, starts with fossils and their formation process as evidence of evolution, followed by human evolution and Darwinian Theory. Equine evolution, geological eras, natural selection and adaptation are also addressed, and hands-on basic experiments are included. Altogether, these subjects occupied twenty pages, out of a total of 242. Human evolution is presented on a single page with a superficial explanation and a reduced text. This page has a total of eight images that form a series (Fig. 1) and a short text that states the following:

Man has also changed a lot in the course of history. Here you can see three fossil skulls of men from past times and drawings showing how those men must have looked like.

The fourth illustration corresponds to a modern man.

In what are they similar? In what are they different?

Figure 1. 

Only page on human evolution in the natural sciences textbook for sixth grade of primary school corresponding to the second generation of free and universal books (Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos 1974, p. 177).

Figure 1. 

Only page on human evolution in the natural sciences textbook for sixth grade of primary school corresponding to the second generation of free and universal books (Comisión Nacional de Libros de Texto Gratuitos 1974, p. 177).

Here, what it is interesting for us concerns language analysis, which involves the examination of words for sexist usage. In the explanation of human evolution in this textbook, the loaded word “men” is used to refer to “humankind” (the most common manifestation of sexism in language is the “generic” use of man and man-compounds and of masculine pronouns (Lee and Collins 2008)). Crawford and English already established in 1984 that the likelihood of a negative impact on women’s learning increases when gender-biased language is used in teaching materials. The practice of sexist language “has been objected to as reflecting an androcentric world-view, insofar as it can be unclear whether the forms include both men and women or whether they refer to men only and, as Briere and Lanktree (1983), Cole, Hill and Dayley (1983), Hamilton (1988), and others have shown, people rarely conceptualize women when masculine “generics” are used” (Lee and Collins 2008, p. 128).

Focusing our attention on the last figure, one can observe a man called “modern” with a beard, mustache and abundant hair representing Homo sapiens, accompanied by a spear-like device. It is the iconic image of a caveman inspired by the reconstructions of prehistoric humans of Zdeněk Burian, a Czech paleontologist who painted all kinds of prehistoric life forms—about 500 images between 1930 and 1981—from the first invertebrates to a wide range of fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds, as well as panoramic views of the landscapes where they lived. To have an idea of the impact of this paleoart pioneer, Burian’s reconstruction of the African sauropod Brachiosaurus (1941) feeding underwater is one of the most reproduced images of dinosaurs in history7 and the influence of Burian’s work is appreciable not only in the field of paleoart, but in films, comics and other products of popular culture.

Stephanie Moser showed in her book Ancestral images (1998) that early human ancestry representations are far more than simply artistic recreations of ancient life; they represent theories of human society and behavior that were current when they were produced. According to Moser (1998) and Areson-Clark (2008), early visualizations of prehistory have retained a strong hold on people’s imagination, making it extremely difficult for scientists to dismantle some of the more misleading aspects of this pictorial tradition, such as the wooden club that Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons are usually represented with, for which there is no paleontological or archaeological evidence of having been used as an accessory or weapon; hirsutism (or abundance of hair) which is culturally associated with wildness and barbarism rather than as a geographical adaptation and the absence of women to represent our species.

3.1.2 Women in Textbooks from 1999 to 2009

In the Educational Reform that took place during the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari in 1993, a new generation of textbooks was conceived which was to be employed from 1999 until 2009. In 1993, the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) made two calls inviting teachers, pedagogues and education researchers to participate in the renewal of the contents of the textbooks. In the case of the Natural Science Textbook for the sixth grade, the topic of evolutionary theory appears at the beginning and the whole book has biological evolution as the main axis of the various topics.

The topic of evolution extends from the origin of the Earth, the transformation of ecosystems (over time due to continental drift), to fossils, extinction of species and geological eras. There is an in-depth look at Darwin, his trip aboard the Beagle and how it helped his evolutionary conception. The book deals extensively with abundant examples of the concepts of natural selection and adaptation. It also contrasts the Darwinian vision with the Lamarckean one and concludes with a chapter on the evolution of Human beings. These themes occupy 60 pages of the book, out of a total of 248: more than three times the length of the previous book.

The following graph (Fig. 2) shows that the book corresponding to the 1993 reform (Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999) contains a total of 103 images in the chapters dealing with biological evolution in general and human evolution, considering the illustrations of the timeline shown in the lower part of the entire book that relate to each topic. The graph also shows the total number of such images in which hominins appear (including Homo sapiens).

Figure 2. 

Comparison between the total number of images in the chapters on evolution and human evolution and the number of such images showing hominins in Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

Figure 2. 

Comparison between the total number of images in the chapters on evolution and human evolution and the number of such images showing hominins in Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

The following graph (Fig. 3) illustrates, of the total number of images that show hominins, including Homo sapiens, how many represent male individuals and how many female ones. The last graph (Fig. 4) shows the representation of women in traditionally stereotyped gender roles, such as cultivation, work at home or childcare in the book studied.

Figure 3. 

Comparison between the total appearance of genders in Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

Figure 3. 

Comparison between the total appearance of genders in Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

Figure 4. 

Total number of images representing the female gender (11) and its relationship with gender roles in Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

Figure 4. 

Total number of images representing the female gender (11) and its relationship with gender roles in Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

The above graphs show that the treatment of gender in the textbook for sixth grade of primary school that was used in Mexico from 1999 to 2009 is sexist as it reproduces gender biases both linguistically and visually (since instead of, for example, using the generic term “human being” or “Homo sapiens”, the highly stereotyped term of “man” is used). Also, in the chapters dealing with evolution, this book reproduces traditional gender relations through discursive roles assigned to men, such as hunting, fighting, and individualism and to women, such as family care, home care and her gregarious nature.

Today it is well known that textbooks with an unfair gender portrayal are capable not only of affecting social values and behavior as they have the potential to influence the development of students’ attitudes (Lee and Collins, 2008), but also of lowering girls’ achievements (although to an unknown extent), especially in weak schools in poor countries (Blumberg 2008).

Here it is important to mention that there is solid material evidence for gender roles occurring 10,000 years ago (O’Brien et al. 2012). The problem is not showing in textbooks that there is scientific evidence that male Homo sapiens tended to stay out and hunt and that females were more private and in charge of raising the children. The problem is that today, women have entered the labor force and should have equal social, political and cultural rights, which we would like to instill in our children. Thus, without any text explaining the equal importance of ancient male and female spaces and roles and giving them equal representation and not relegating women to the background, textbooks keep giving legitimacy to traditional and patriarchal ways of life. The strong dichotomy between masculine and feminine roles without specifying the crucial importance of each for the evolution of social interaction, might lead to deeply entrenched stereotypes of women as weak and incapable of doing “certain” activities, accepting roles with unequal social status in the future.

On a different note, it is worth noticing that the use of masculine images like the previous ones, showing a strong fighter that seems to have travelled through history as a mighty hunter with a weapon in hand and an ostensibly primitive appearance, belongs to a historical western tradition of depicting “the Other.” According to Moser (1998) the source of inspiration for representing ancestral hominins with a club are some medieval pictures such as the Blemmyae. The Blemmyae were one typical depiction of “the Other” who, in contrast with knights who carried swords, carried wooden clubs like wild men. Scientists and artists borrowed this artefact to create the “caveman” soon after the fossil remains of Neanderthals8 were considered to be a species other than ours in the late nineteenth century. The images that played an important role in the creation of the caveman or “missing link” that even now are part of the collective imaginary are, on the one hand, the first representation of a Neanderthal in a natural setting that appeared in Harper’s Weekly, XVII (864), pg. 617, in July 19, 1873 (Fig. 5) which eventually became the stereotypical representation of “the caveman” (and cavewoman) and Henri du Cleuziou’s quarto-sized wood-engravings of prehistoric humans in his book “The Creation of Man and the First Ages of Humanity” from 18879 (Fig. 10).

Figure 5. 

The Neanderthal Man in Harper’s Weekly, XVII (864): 617, in July 19, 1873.

Figure 5. 

The Neanderthal Man in Harper’s Weekly, XVII (864): 617, in July 19, 1873.

It is thought-provoking that the cavewoman is sleeping on what can be deduced from the claws as a bearskin rug next to a couple of domesticated dogs. The confrontation between prehistoric men and bear will be a recurrent theme in subsequent reconstructions of ancient life, such as in the art of Zdeněk Burian (Fig 6).

Figure 6. 

Zdeněk Burian “Hunting the Cave bear” 1960.

Figure 6. 

Zdeněk Burian “Hunting the Cave bear” 1960.

Figure 7. 

Examples of Henri du Cleuziou’s quarto-sized wood-engravings of prehistoric humans in his book “The Creation of Man and the First Ages of Humanity” from 1887.

Figure 7. 

Examples of Henri du Cleuziou’s quarto-sized wood-engravings of prehistoric humans in his book “The Creation of Man and the First Ages of Humanity” from 1887.

It is interesting to notice how these images are part of both historical and contemporary iconography of human prehistory, and how they have represented the “men of the past” with cultural attributes that they probably did not have (certain clothing, use of certain tools and behaviors), which have largely shaped the collective imagination about human ancestry and evolution.

Returning to the images present in the textbook we have been referring to (Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999), certain studies, such as the one conducted by Siegal and Okamoto (1996) suggest that students feel discouraged by stereotypical and biased representations in general, but moreover, the normative, stereotypical and traditionally gendered world created in textbooks elicit resistance to learning by female students. The reconstructions of the past should show the intensity of social interaction, in which cooperation between male and female was fundamental, to be concordant with scientific evidence and to eliminate sexism.

Additionally, in this book there are two evolutionary trees that show Human beings (Fig. 8), since they represent the evolution of mammals (left) and the evolution of primates (right). In both, Homo sapiens occupies the highest position in the scheme, causing a visual illusion of superiority with respect to other species. Both human figures present traditional and stereotypical physical characteristics including the dress (loincloth), abundant body hair and a Caucasian male.

Figure 8. 

Two evolutionary trees used to represent mammal evolution (left) on p. 60, and primate evolution (right) on p. 61 (Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999).

Figure 8. 

Two evolutionary trees used to represent mammal evolution (left) on p. 60, and primate evolution (right) on p. 61 (Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999).

The next image (Fig. 9) is a timeline of human ancestry that goes from the appearance of Australopithecus to modern humans showing the main changes in chronological order. This timeline is thought to help the student visualize the order of events in human evolution, the lapses between events, their duration and their simultaneity or superposition. Once again, only Caucasian individuals of the male gender are shown.

Figure 9. 

Representation of the evolutionary history of human beings on p. 63 of Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

Figure 9. 

Representation of the evolutionary history of human beings on p. 63 of Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999.

“Another one of the oldest ancestors (after Ardipithecus ramidus) and best studied of human beings is the species formed by monkey-like individuals, who measured from one meter to one and a half meters tall, walked on two legs, had long arms, protruding cheekbones, low eyebrows and a small brain” (Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999, p. 63). This is the description given by the book of Australopithecus afarensis, whose remains were found in the Afar Desert, Ethiopia in 1974. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this image, which is found in numerous books on human evolution, is that it shows that many of the visual representations used in education to complement or clarify scientific concepts are not based directly on evidence. The theory indicates that australopithecines had a type of social structure, lived in small family groups with a certain number of females and a male, which does not agree with the “hugging” performed by the pair of Australopithecus afarensis taking a walk (see Fig. 10). One possible explanation is that even when illustrators should work closely with the specialists, sometimes they execute their work with a partial artistic component and imprint their very own conception of the world. In this particular case, once again it would seem that the identity of females is given by their relationship or link with males.

Figure 10. 

Representation of Australopithecus afarensis on Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999, 63.

Figure 10. 

Representation of Australopithecus afarensis on Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999, 63.

Finally, the next image (composed by two figures) which is not found in the chapter on evolution or human ancestry, but on the topic of the evidences of evolution, is one more example of the widespread and tyrannical habit of representing only male individuals, even in partial images where there is no need for gender typification (Fig. 11). It is clear that both images correspond to male individuals. In the representation of an arm, the presence of large muscle mass immediately produces the association with a man, because in general, the skeletal muscles of men are larger and some (such as the quadriceps) have a greater proportional area of fast muscle fibers (type II) than women. In the case of the foot, we know that there are no anatomical differences between female and a male feet. Having said this, there are some statistical parameters that lead to a correlation between foot and gender, being that on average, men have bigger feet than women. This tendency leads us to think that the individual to whom the foot belongs is a man.

Figure 11. 

Left, examples of homologies on Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999, 44. Right, series on Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999, 61 that includes hands and thus human, gorilla, chimpanzee and orangutan, of which only the first two are shown.

Figure 11. 

Left, examples of homologies on Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999, 44. Right, series on Secretaría de Educación Pública 1999, 61 that includes hands and thus human, gorilla, chimpanzee and orangutan, of which only the first two are shown.

Another aspect worth mentioning to appreciate that the manufacture of images often has a double agenda is that, in the figure to the right which is a comparison of hands and feet of different primates, the human hand appears holding a pencil. This simple fact predisposes the observer to create a positive prejudice of aptitude (education) towards the human, while also creating a prejudice against the inability of the rest of the represented primates. In the text you can read … “a much more developed intelligence and ability to speak…” comparing the human with the rest of primates. The reality is that different (non-human) primates have been taught to communicate with each other and with humans, and although this ability does not equate with “talking”, care must be taken with this type of statements that may lead to thinking of higher and lower species in the evolutionary history. Regarding the images of feet, the human digitus primus gives the illusion of being open (an anatomical feature absent in Homo sapiens) forcing a certain resemblance to that of other contemporary primates. The reason for this representation is not clear, but again, it would seem a graphic strategy to make students feel closer to our phylogenetic closest relatives.

3.1.3 Women in Monographs

In the case of school monographs, the images will not be discussed in detail. The graphs of the quantitative analysis of all the monographs related to the subject of biological evolution and human ancestry are presented below and show the proportion of gender representation and gender roles. The general discussion will be found by the reader in the conclusions. To wit: women were far less represented than men and in traditional activities with no text stating their importance. Women were depicted always as passive while men did all the impressive and exciting things and none of the caring, or “feminine” activities.

Figure 12. 

Comparison between the number of monographs dealing with the topic of evolution and those dealing with the topic of Human evolution.

Figure 12. 

Comparison between the number of monographs dealing with the topic of evolution and those dealing with the topic of Human evolution.

Figure 13. 

Comparison between the number of monographs dealing with the topic of evolution and the topic of Human evolution.

Figure 13. 

Comparison between the number of monographs dealing with the topic of evolution and the topic of Human evolution.

Figure 14. 

Comparison between the total number of men depicted vs the total number of women.

Figure 14. 

Comparison between the total number of men depicted vs the total number of women.

Figure 15. 

Of the 8 women represented in the teaching of human evolution / human ancestry (in a total of 220 images), most are performing stereotypical tasks, such as growing crops, taking care of young children or feeding.

Figure 15. 

Of the 8 women represented in the teaching of human evolution / human ancestry (in a total of 220 images), most are performing stereotypical tasks, such as growing crops, taking care of young children or feeding.

Below is a sample of the monographs in question:

Figure 16. 

“Primitive Men”. Printed by Grupo Editorial RAF S.A. México. No. 481.

Figure 16. 

“Primitive Men”. Printed by Grupo Editorial RAF S.A. México. No. 481.

Figure 17. 

“Evolution of Men.” Printed by Grupo Editorial RAF S.A. México. No. 1065.

Figure 17. 

“Evolution of Men.” Printed by Grupo Editorial RAF S.A. México. No. 1065.

Figure 18. 

“Evolution of Men” Printed by Grupo Editorial EPSA. México. No. 339.

Figure 18. 

“Evolution of Men” Printed by Grupo Editorial EPSA. México. No. 339.

Figure 19. 

“Origins of American Men.” Printed by Grupo Editorial SUN RISE México. No. 500.

Figure 19. 

“Origins of American Men.” Printed by Grupo Editorial SUN RISE México. No. 500.

4. Conclusions

First, thanks to the work of Martin Rudwick (1976, 1992) and then to the work of Stephanie Moser (1992, 1998) it became clear that the visual representations of the distant past are crucial for people to have a sense of prehistory and especially of our ancestors, where we come from, how they lived and how they looked. These works were also important to show and recognize the profound influence of non-verbal communication not only for popular understanding (or misunderstanding) of science, but also for the production of identities and power relations.

Mexican textbooks for elementary school have been free and universal for nearly 60 years, in which time there have only been four generations (three that include the topic of evolutionary theory). Societal and cultural values of the times were and are reflected in these books, which have an agenda that is not only pedagogical but also ideological and political, since textbooks are a fundamental socializing tool for teaching, as well as conveying values and the status quo.

Regarding the acquisition of gender identity, psychologist Shaw (1998) stated that “As they develop, children look for structure in their lives and are driven by an internal need to fit into this structure. They observe the world and try to develop sets of rules that they can apply to a wide variety of situations. A child’s knowledge of his own gender and its implications is known as gender identity. As children acquire gender identities, they also acquire stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a boy or girl” (1998, p. 24). In this sense, textbooks that have a strong tendency not to be gender fair and show blatant sexism might prevent students from considering other ways of life than those traditional and dominant in a given society.

According to Gooden and Gooden (2001), illustrated books in particular tend to significantly affect gender development. The imaginary worlds created by the visual apparatus used in Mexican educational materials in relation to gender on the subject of human evolution from 1974 to the present constrain the available identity options for children. This is alarming for any scientific subject, but even more so for the teaching of evolutionary theory since it addresses questions about human nature that can lead to issues of gender inequality, ethnic identity and stereotyping.

As shown in this paper, there has historically been an astonishing disproportion in the representation of men and women in Mexican educational materials which has not changed over time, at least on the topic of biological evolution. As has become evident, the images of “early humans” in such materials show only men almost entirely. Women are, in general, invisible. Since the representations used in textbooks and school monographs are outdated and reminiscent of both late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century iconography, it is not yet clear if the reason is because it was “indecent” or “degrading” to show animal-like human females, or because women were not seen as appropriate representatives of the “human species.” What is crystal clear is that all reconstructions of human past in Mexican educational materials have the tendency to stereotype gender roles and to depict women far less often than men and always in the family domain, implicitly defining women’s roles through their relationships with men, which is a powerful and tyrannical way to create prejudice regarding female identity and future options. At the very least, it reinforces the patriarchal idea that women are a weaker sex who are thoroughly dispensable except for home care and bearing children.

After this quantitative and qualitative study, using gender as a category, it is clear that we have lived in a world dominated by men. Male Homo sapiens are the representatives of the species, making this conception dominate reconstructions of the past. Having thus shaped the collective imaginary about human evolution, students are therefore deprived of important resources they need to position themselves in different sorts of interactions involving their gender identities.

Finally, to allow a comparison with the statistics previously given from the early twentieth century on the status of the education of women in Mexico, 95% of girls and 94.5% of boys between the ages of 6 and 14 attended school in 201010, which means that the school attendance rate of girls was higher than that of boys in the 6–11 age group and girls made up more than half the number of students (51.6%) in elementary institutions. This represents an improvement in educational opportunities, but also a pressing need to eliminate all forms of gender inequality in Mexican education.

Notes

1. 

Data obtained from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography 2015 (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, INEGI). http://www.beta.inegi.org.mx/temas/estructura/

2. 

Oxfam was founded in 1995 by a group of independent non-governmental organizations. Its objective was to work together to achieve a greater impact in the international struggle to reduce poverty and injustice. The name “Oxfam” comes from the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, founded in Britain in 1942. This group of citizens campaigned for food supplies to be sent through an allied naval blockade to starving women and children in enemy-occupied Greece during the Second World War. Today, the Oxfam confederation is composed of 20 organizations that have their headquarters in countries all over the world and is considered the leading global organization in emergency humanitarian aid, and in the establishment of long-term development programs in vulnerable communities. (https://www.oxfam.org)

3. 

Figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography.

6. 

Delivering a free textbook to elementary students was not new in Mexico. Since the Porfiriato and in the governments of Alvaro Obregón, Lázaro Cárdenas and Manuel Ávila Camacho, efforts had been made to provide reading materials and literacy books to the country’s schools (Martínez 2002). The originality of the initiative discussed above, is in the trinity of free, unique (called universal from here), and obligatory that has characterized Mexican textbooks since the 1960s and in the functions and faculties that the State acquired (Quintanilla and Ixba 2011).

7. 

Although today it is considered unlikely that this animal could breathe submerged in deep water, unless it had a powerful pleural cavity like that of some whales.

8. 

Neanderthal fossils were first discovered in 1829 in the Engis caves, in what is now Belgium, by Philippe-Charles Schmerling and the Gibraltar 1 skull in 1848 in Forbes’ Quarry, Gibraltar. These were not, at the time, recognized as representing an archaic form of humans.

9. 

According to Dr. William B. Ashworth Jr, “in 1887, du Cleuziou published a book called La création de l’homme et les premiers ages de humanité. This was not the first book to include prehistoric humans in a history of humankind. Louis Figuier did that in 1870, but it is certainly the most extensive such compilation to appear in the 19th century” (http://www.lindahall.org/henri-raison-du-cleuziou/).

10. 

According to INEGI.

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