from The Textbook Letter, November-December 2000

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Biology: Living Systems
1998. 966 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-826347-2.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

More Biobabble from Glencoe

William J. Bennetta

The covers of the 1998 version of Glencoe's Biology: Living Systems, like the covers of the 1994 version, display a photograph of some cranes. The photo dominates the front cover, runs across the book's spine, and then extends onto the back cover, where it is augmented by the same descriptive paragraph that appeared on the back cover of the 1994 version. The paragraph begins thus:

Like these sandhill cranes, most living things are unique and complex living systems.

"Most"? What is that word "most" meant to imply? Are there some other living things that aren't "unique" or aren't "complex"? Are there some living things that aren't "systems"? Are there some living things that aren't "living"? How can that be?

Though Glencoe's utterance about "most living things" is just empty biobabble, it has a perverse virtue: It functions as a reliable introduction to the material that a reader will find inside the book. In the 1998 version of Living Systems, as in the 1994 version, biobabble is everywhere.

When I reviewed the 1994 version [see note 1, below], I emphasized these three observations:

The 1998 version is much the same as the 1994. Glencoe has made some changes in Living Systems, but with very little effect. Living Systems still is a glitzy parody of biology, still is pervaded by superstition, and still cannot be mistaken for a general- biology text.

In its structure and its pagination, the 1998 Living Systems matches the 1994 version exactly -- 873 pages in the body of the book, then 92 pages devoted to appendices and some lists.

To search for differences between the two versions, I have examined them in two ways. First: I have taken a random sample of 96 pages from the body of the 1998 book, and I have compared these pages with the like-numbered pages in the 1994. (In 70 cases, the page in the 1998 version has turned out to be identical with the corresponding page in the 1994. In 7 cases, the page in the 1998 book shows a change that is merely cosmetic -- i.e. some type has been reset, with no change in wording, or a color scheme has been altered. And in 19 cases, the page in the 1998 shows a change in content, though the change isn't necessarily an improvement. In some instances, Glencoe's writers have simply replaced old nonsense with new nonsense.) Second: After finishing my random survey, I have checked to see whether the writers have revised defective items that appeared in the 1994 version and were explicitly described in my review of the 1994. (During this checking, I have seen changes in a dozen items -- but again, not all of the changes are improvements.) Here are some of my specific findings:

Pigeon Pie

I shall conclude this review by considering, in some detail, a problem that is presented to the student on page 369 of Living Systems. The problem itself is junk, but the history that underlies the problem is highly instructive.

In the 1998 version of Living Systems, as in the 1994, pages 368 and 369 display a boxed article about John James Audubon. In that article, the student reads that Audubon "described watching migrating passenger pigeons in 1813" and that Audubon wrote: "The air was literally filled with pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse." Then, at the end of the article, the student finds this problem:

Mathematics Connection: Audubon made a rough calculation of how many passenger pigeons there were in a flock. He figured that the birds flew 60 miles per hour in a column about one mile wide. If a flock took three hours to pass overhead, and two birds occupied one square yard of space, how many birds would that flock contain?

Glencoe's writers pose their question ("If a flock took three hours . . . ?") as if it were their own creation. In fact, however, it is a restatement of some foolish stuff written by Audubon himself -- stuff which Audubon concocted from material that he had stolen.

The history of this matter reaches back to the early 1800s and to American Ornithology, Alexander Wilson's renowned treatise on American birds [note 5]. In his narrative about the passenger pigeon, Wilson told of a flock that he had seen near Frankfort, Kentucky:

They were flying with great steadiness and rapidity, at a height beyond gunshot, in several strata deep, and so close together, that, could shot have reached them, one discharge could not have failed of bringing down several individuals. From right to left, far as the eye could reach, the breadth of this vast procession extended, seeming every where equally crowded.

Later, Wilson speculated about how much mast [note 6] would have been consumed by that flock in a day:

If we suppose this column to have been one mile in breadth, (and I believe it to have been much more,) and that it moved at the rate of one mile in a minute, four hours, the time it continued passing, would make its whole length two hundred and forty miles. Again, supposing that each square yard of this moving body comprehended three Pigeons, the square yards in the whole space, multiplied by three, would give two thousand two hundred and thirty millions, two hundred and seventy-two thousand Pigeons! -- an almost inconceivable multitude, and yet probably far below the actual amount. Computing each of these to consume half a pint of mast daily, the whole quantity at this rate would equal seventeen millions, four hundred and twenty-four thousand bushels per day!

More than twenty years after Wilson composed those lines for American Ornithology, John James Audubon addressed the passenger pigeon in his own great treatise, his Ornithological Biography [note 7]. As Wilson had done, Audubon assigned to the pigeon a speed of a mile a minute -- but Audubon, unlike Wilson, was unwilling to present this speed as a mere supposition. Audubon depicted it as a scientific inference:

Pigeons have been killed in the neighbourhood of New York, with their crops full of rice, which they must have collected in the fields of Georgia and Carolina, . . . . As their power of digestion is so great that they will decompose food entirely in twelve hours, they must in this case have travelled between three hundred and four hundred miles in six hours, which shews their speed to be at an average about one mile in a minute.

He did not tell why he thought that passenger pigeons could always digest their food within twelve hours, nor did he explain why the rice found in those pigeons "killed in the neighbourhood of New York" must have been residing in their crops for no more (or less) than six hours. In truth, Audubon's mathematical exercise was a bogus elaboration of something that he had lifted from Wilson. In American Ornithology, Wilson had mentioned en passant that "rice has been frequently found in individuals killed many hundred miles to the northward of the nearest rice plantation." Audubon took that remark and decorated it with some numbers which he had rigged to yield the deduction that passenger pigeons could fly at a mile a minute for long periods of time.

Later in his exposition, Audubon described a huge flock of passenger pigeons he had seen near Hardensburgh, Kentucky. He wrote that "The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting snow; . . . ." -- and he offered another calculation:

Let us take a column of one mile in breadth, which is far below the average size, and suppose it passing over us without interruption for three hours, at the rate mentioned above of one mile in a minute. This will give us a parallelogram of 180 miles by 1, covering 180 square miles. Allowing two pigeons to the square yard, we have One billion, one hundred and fifteen millions, one hundred and thirty-six thousand pigeons in one flock. As every pigeon daily consumes fully half a pint of food, the quantity necessary for supplying this vast multitude must be eight millions seven hundred and twelve thousand bushels per day.

It is easy to see how Audubon fashioned that passage. He took some more material from Wilson's account of the Frankfort flock, he omitted Wilson's observation that passenger pigeons flew "in several strata deep," and he altered some of Wilson's figures so that the number of pigeons and the daily consumption of mast would be reduced by 50%. This feat, a combination of plagiarism and arbitrary fudging, has been frugally described by Robert Plate in his biography of Wilson: "Audubon's vivid account of the passenger pigeon," Plate says, "owed much to Wilson. In 'estimating' the numbers and mast consumption of a flight he witnessed, for instance, Audubon's odd method was to take Wilson's figures, cut them exactly in half -- and present them as his own." [note 8]

Now look at the Glencoe "Mathematics Connection" problem again. To "solve" that problem with the information given, the student must assume that the birds formed a thin lamina, a mile wide and only one bird deep -- but this contradicts Wilson's report that the pigeons in a flock deployed themselves in "several strata." To solve the problem for a real flock, the student would have to know the flock's depth as well as its width, and he would have to know the number of pigeons in a cubic yard.

There is another approach, but it is available only to a student who understands the concept of projected area: Such a student can interpret Glencoe's question to mean that the flock was a mile wide and that, within the flock's projected area on a plane, each square yard contained the projected silhouettes of two birds. But this interpretation leads to the conclusion that the flock couldn't have had much effect on "the light of noon-day." Let's do the math:

An adult passenger pigeon's wingspan was 24 inches or so, and the bird's overall length was some 16 inches, roughly half of which represented its long, tapered tail. Hence the silhouette of one bird, with wings fully extended, would have fit into a rectangle measuring 24 by 16 inches and having, therefore, an area of 384 square inches. If we adopt the rather generous assumption that the area of the silhouette itself would have been equal to one-third of the area of the rectangle, we find that the silhouette of one bird would have covered 128 square inches, and the silhouettes of two birds would have covered 256 square inches -- about 20% of a square yard. At two birds per square yard, then, the projected silhouettes of the all the birds in the flock would have covered only 20% of the projected area of the flock. Such a flock's effect on "the light of noon-day" would have been comparable to the effect of an eclipse only if the eclipse was a partial and rather puny one.

Real history always is more interesting than the tripe served up by schoolbook-company hacks, and the same is true of real math.


  1. See "Smiling Jack's Religious Tract" in The Textbook Letter, January-February 1996. [return to text]

  2. For more information about natural theology and its persistence in textbooks, see "When the Shark Bites with His Teeth, Dear, Remember That It's All for the Best" in TTL, November-December 1991, and "Old Paley Strikes Again" in TTL, September-October 1992. [return to text]

  3. For refutations of some of the fictions that schoolbook-writers commonly peddle when they pretend to tell of Darwin's visit to the Galápagos Archipelago, see Frank J. Sulloway's fine article "Darwin and the Galápagos: Three Myths" in the Summer 1987 issue of Oceanus. [return to text]

  4. The confusion of regeneration with reproduction is common in fake "science" books. See, for example, Ellen C. Weaver's review of Merrill Life Science in TTL for January-February 1993. [return to text]

  5. American Ornithology was issued in nine volumes, during a period of five years, starting in 1808. [return to text]

  6. Here the word mast denotes acorns, beechnuts and other nuts that have accumulated on the floor of a forest. [return to text]

  7. The Ornithological Biography consisted of five volumes, the first of which was issued in 1831. [return to text]

  8. See Alexander Wilson: Wanderer in the Wilderness, by Robert Plate, issued in 1966 by David McKay Company (New York City). [return to text]

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 often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


Pointer return to top
Pointer go to Home Page
Pointer read the Index List, which shows all the textbooks, curriculum manuals,
     videos and other items that are considered on this Web site
Pointer contact William J. Bennetta by e-mail