from The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 2

Reviewing a middle-school book in life science

Glencoe Science: Life Science
2002. 926 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-07-823694-0.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 8787 Orion Place, Columbus, Ohio 43240.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

This Textbook Is a Slick Package
of Misinformation and Mediocrity

Michael T. Ghiselin

The writers of Glencoe Science: Life Science have tried to tell about the nature of science and how science works, but their performance is uneven. On pages 7 through 10, for example, they give a creditable description of how a scientist might attack a problem; they say that scientific observations may be made in a laboratory or in the field; and they introduce the concept of a scientific hypothesis as an informed conjecture that can be tested against observations. That is commendable, but elsewhere Glencoe's writers use the word hypothesis as if it meant nothing more than an idle guess. The writers do this repeatedly in exercises which require the student to "hypothesize" without having basic information and without showing whether or how the resulting "hypotheses" can be tested. I cite as examples: "Hypothesize why cooking pork at high temperatures prevents harmful roundworms from developing, if they are present in the uncooked meat" (page 361) and "Hypothesize why most birds eat nuts, berries, insects, nectar, or meat, but not grass and leaves" (page 439). Inducing students to believe that they are formulating scientific hypotheses when they are just speculating is wrong and unacceptable. Encouraging students to exercise their imaginations is a legitimate educational practice, but misleading the students by misusing a word is not.

Organic evolution is properly depicted as a theory, well supported by many lines of evidence. On page 154, however, the term theory is applied not only to Darwin's model of evolution but also to Lamarck's model -- and then (on page 155) Lamarck's "theory" turns into a "hypothesis." In reality, Lamarck's view of evolution was neither a theory nor a hypothesis, because it could not be tested. As I explained in The Textbook Letter nearly ten years ago, Lamarck's construct rested on the metaphysical assumption that simple animals arose spontaneously and then, under the influence of a "tendency to perfection," progressed to become more complex and more man-like. This notion could not be treated scientifically, could not be supported or contravened by evidence, and was not comparable in any meaningful way to the construct put forth by Darwin [see note 1, below].

To make matters worse, Glencoe's writers assign to Lamarck's "hypothesis" the name "the inheritance of acquired characteristics," but they fail to point out that Darwin too accepted the proposition that acquired characteristics could be transmitted from progenitors to progeny. This distortion of history is common in schoolbooks: Lamarck and Darwin are isolated from one another, as if there were no intellectual connection between them.

Placating Creationists

Glencoe's writers aren't comfortable with evolution, and they sometimes use misleading locutions which have been devised to placate creationists. Hence on page 157 they describe Darwin's model of descent with modification as "the theory of evolution that is accepted by most scientists today." They fail to say anything about any scientists who prefer other models, or about what those other models may be, but it is obvious that they are tipping their hats to the creationists who purvey pseudoscientific religious nonsense, such as "creation-science" and "intelligent design." In any case, the statement that Darwin's model "is accepted by most scientists today" is inane, for this reason: Only a small fraction of today's scientists are engaged in studying the history and diversity of life on Earth, and these scientists are the only ones whose appraisals of Darwin's model have any significance. The point that must be conveyed to students is this: A modernized version of Darwin's model of descent with modification and adaptation through natural selection is the only model that such scientists take seriously.

The writers again show their discomfort when they make this mushy statement: "Because plants and green algae are similar in their structure, chlorophyll, and how they undergo [sic] photosynthesis, some scientists hypothesize that plants evolved from ancient, many-celled green algae." Here the writers are creating the false impression that a robust scientific inference about evolution lacks empirical support. If they had dealt honestly with that inference, they would have written something like this: Plants and green algae show many cellular and subcellular similarities, and these provide abundant support for the hypothesis that plants have evolved from ancient, many-celled green algae.

Even worse is this mush-mouthing on page 170: "All primates have opposable thumbs, binocular vision, and flexible shoulders that allow the arms to rotate. These shared characteristics could indicate that all primates may have evolved from a common ancestor" (emphasis added). The writers have used the mushy phrases "could indicate" and "may have evolved" to mislead students and, presumably, to keep creationists quiet. Here is an honest statement of the point that the writers have tried to muddle: These shared characteristics, and many others as well, constitute compelling evidence that all primates are descendants of a common ancestor.

On several pages Glencoe's writers present evidence for the fact of evolution, i.e., evidence showing that evolution has indeed occurred. I am glad to see that they have told that "Sometimes, evolution can be directly observed" (page 167), but their material is generally lame, and I perceive that they have copied from other schoolbooks instead of studying the subject matter. For one thing, they say that evidence obtained from embryology and from the analysis of DNA is "indirect" evidence of evolution, but they don't explain what is "indirect" about it or what the expression "indirect evidence" is supposed to mean. For another, they don't cite any biogeographical evidence, even though Darwin himself said that his recognition of evolution was sparked by some of his biogeographical observations. These Glencoe writers should look beyond old schoolbooks, should open On the Origin of Species to the "Introduction," and should notice that Darwin cites biogeography in his very first sentence: "When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent."

The section on the history of classification (pages 22 and 23) is so garbled that I find it hard to imagine how any student could make sense of it. The writers begin by teaching that Aristotle had a system for classifying organisms -- but in fact, Aristotle didn't devise a formal classification system at all. Then the writers say that Carolus Linnaeus developed a "new system" in which organisms were grouped together if they had "similar structures" -- but in fact, naturalists had been doing this for centuries, and there was nothing new about it. Then the writers declare that modern scientists use a classification technique that is based on phylogeny, and that phylogeny means "the evolutionary history of an organism, or how it has changed over time," and that phylogeny is used for classifying "many organisms." The student will conclude that there are other organisms which are exempt from phylogenetic classification, but the writers don't explain why this should be so. Further, their definition of phylogeny is wrong: A phylogeny is not the history of a single organism; a phylogeny is the history of a lineage, with all of the branchings that have engendered new groups from common ancestors. The idea that modern classification revolves around common ancestries appears to have escaped the writers' comprehension.

Ignoring Genealogical Relationships

When the writers discuss particular groups of organisms, they generally fail to give students any clear idea of how the groups are related. In reading Life Science, I have been struck strongly by the virtual absence of evolutionary "trees" -- i.e., diagrams that, by showing how lineages have branched over time, would help students to understand the genealogical relationships on which biological classification is based. This near-absence is especially curious because the writers have expended a lot of effort in encouraging students to use Venn diagrams, concept maps, cycle maps, and other pictorial representations of information. A tree-like illustration on page 160 deals with evolutionary relationships among some bears and their relatives, but the illustration seems to emphasize not the relationships themselves but the supposed rapidity of speciation within the bear lineage. The only other tree that I've noticed appears on page 246 and is more successful. It helps students to grasp the relationships among eleven lineages of plants.

There is no tree to show the relationships of the dinosaurs to other animals, and the treatment of the dinosaurs in Life Science is exceptionally poor. The illustration titled "Visualizing Extinct Reptiles" (page 420) shows some ancient reptiles, but these don't include any dinosaurs, and the book's text seems to mention dinosaurs only twice. A sentence on page 421 tells that dinosaurs "ruled Earth" until they "died out about 65 million years ago." Then, on page 439, in a passage titled "Origin of Birds," the writers mention Protoavis and make these statements: "Protoavis lived about 225 million years ago. No fossil feathers were found with Protoavis. Scientists do not know if this animal was an ancestor of modern birds or a type of ground-living dinosaur." That is a false distinction because -- in principle, at least -- Protoavis might have been both. The lineage that gave rise to modern birds sprang from dinosaurs that lived on the ground, and modern birds themselves are now considered to be strongly modified dinosaurs. Glencoe's writers don't know these things, so their material about "Origin of Birds" is a failure.

Life Science has several "Science and History" articles, each occupying a two-page spread. A particularly egregious example is the article entitled "Have a Heart," which purports to tell about William Harvey and then about "an American medical pioneer," Daniel Hale Williams, who in 1893 "performed the first open-heart surgery by removing a knife from the heart of a stabbing victim." I guess that we must tolerate the material about Williams, since schoolbooks are supposed to provide students with examples of vocational opportunities, but the material about Harvey is a crime against history. If done properly, an account of Harvey and his studies of the circulation of the blood in mammals can serve as a magnificent model of scientific thinking, beginning with the discrediting of the old idea that blood flowed from the heart to the periphery of the body via the veins. (That idea became questionable after the discovery that veins contained valves.) Harvey's simple, elegant experiments are easy to explain and easy to repeat, and they can help students to understand the workings of their own hearts, but Glencoe's writers haven't explained anything and haven't even told what Harvey did. They have merely reproduced one of Harvey's woodcuts without any indication of what it shows.

The account of Mendel in Life Science is another affront to history: Glencoe's writers, evidently invoking hearsay and speculation, tell students that Mendel was "an Austrian monk who studied mathematics and science but became a gardener in a monastery." In fact, Mendel belonged to a teaching order, the Augustinians, and in his professional life he was equivalent to a modern high-school teacher. He spent most of his career in a monastery at Brno, in Moravia, and he eventually became the monastery's abbot. The garden at the monastery was a convenient place for Mendel to conduct his pioneering experiments in genetics, but the claim that he was employed as a gardener is fatuous guesswork.

In general, the coverage of human anatomy and physiology in Life Science is slanted toward hygiene and other practical matters. This is not unreasonable in a middle-school textbook.

Human reproduction is presented in the form of information, written in a rather matter-of-fact manner, about organs and sperm cells and eggs. Copulation is not mentioned. The writers say that "200 million to 300 million sperm can be deposited in the vagina" (page 639), but they don't suggest how such a deposition might be carried out. The prostate gland is shown in an illustration on page 634, but it is not discussed in the adjacent text [note 2]. The drawing of a spermatozoon (page 634) is poorly executed, and the diagram of the development of identical twins (page 640) does not make clear that both twins arise from just one zygote.

Revealing Illustrations

The illustrations of animals in Life Science are revealing. They reveal that the task of drawing animals has been assigned to artists who have little, if any, knowledge of zoology. On page 364, for example, we find a colored drawing that purportedly shows the "general mollusk body plan," but what the drawing actually shows is a terrestrial pulmonate snail, i.e., a snail like the ones that crawl about in gardens. A pulmonate snail is not a generalized mollusk because the pulmonates are highly modified. As the name pulmonate suggests, these mollusks have lungs and breathe air -- but typical mollusks are aquatic or marine, have gills (not lungs), and breathe water. Indeed, the garden snails' aquatic ancestors had gills, and many other snails still do, though the terrestrial pulmonates do not. Glencoe's artist doesn't know this, but he seems to be aware that at least some mollusks have gills, for he has stuck a gill inside the snail's lung! We should be thankful that Glencoe didn't direct this artist to draw a general body plan of a vertebrate. Who knows what he might have come up with? A mermaid?

Even sloppier is the picture on page 367 -- a dorsal view of a squid, supposedly showing how "Squid and other cephalopods use jet propulsion to move quickly away from predators." A squid certainly does use a kind of jet propulsion, but not in the impossible way that Glencoe's picture shows. In the real world, a squid draws water into its mantle cavity through paired lateral apertures, then ejects the water through a ventral tube, called the funnel, that is directed forward -- and as the water is expelled forward, the squid travels backward, in keeping with Newton's third law of motion. Glencoe's picture shows something quite different. Because it is a dorsal view, the ventral funnel is entirely concealed. Labels indicate that the squid draws water into its mantle cavity through the aperture on its right side, expels the water through the aperture on its left side, yet still manages to travel backward! If a squid actually propelled itself according to Glencoe's scheme, the squid would travel sideways or, perhaps, in a circle.

The chapters on ecology and conservation, near the end of the book, provide a satisfactory introduction to ecological science and to some of the more important ecological difficulties that confront our society.

A lot of the material in Life Science has been chosen for its entertainment value. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but too much of the material seems trivial. Maybe it is worth mentioning that May is National Egg Month (page 453), but expressing the commercial output of antibiotics in terms of the weight of a space shuttle is downright silly [note 3].

Throughout Life Science, so many of the persons who appear in illustrations are blacks or mulattoes that one might suspect that the book is meant for sale in some foreign country. I understand that Glencoe is trying to suggest, correctly, that science is an appropriate activity for anyone, irrespective of the color of one's skin -- but Glencoe's excessive use of black and mulatto models in a book intended for use in the United States is unrealistic and silly.

Life Science has been designed not to familiarize students with contemporary science but to comply with the ugly realities of contemporary American pedagogy. It is a slick, commercial product, created for a market that prizes misinformation and mediocrity.


  1. See my article "The Imaginary Lamarck: A Look at Bogus `History' in Schoolbooks" in The Textbook Letter, Vol. 5, No. 4. [return to text]

  2. Admittedly, a boy of middle-school age doesn't need to know much or worry much about his prostate, but when he is older he probably will experience prostate trouble of one sort or another. Cancer of the prostate is mentioned in a single sentence on page 675 of Life Science, where the writers call the prostate "an organ that surrounds the urethra." They don't say anything about its function or physiology, nor do they direct students to the illustration on page 634. [return to text]

  3. On page 681 of Life Science we read: "Pharmaceutical companies in the United States produce nearly 23 million kg of antibiotics each year. That's equivalent to the weight of about 50 space shuttles." [return to text]

This Book Is the Worst

William J. Bennetta

The more it changes, the more it remains the same -- and the more it remains the same, the bigger it becomes.

The 1993 version of Glencoe/McGraw-Hill's life-science text was titled Merrill Life Science and had 714 pages [see note 1, below]. The 1995 version was called Merrill Life Science too, but it had 745 pages [note 2]. The 1999 version was called Glencoe Life Science and had 837 pages [note 3]. And now we see the 2002 version, which is titled Glencoe Science: Life Science and is so bloated with glitz and gimmicks and worthless pictures that it has 926 pages! It is the biggest life-science book that Glencoe has yet produced.

It is also the worst, and it is the worst because it is the biggest. Because it is the biggest, it carries an unprecedentedly heavy load of the fumbled factoids, buffoonish guesses, incomprehensible passages, internal contradictions and racist deceits that we have come to associate with Glencoe life-science books. And because it is the biggest, it accommodates a uniquely large number of items in which Glencoe's writers show their contempt for students and exhibit their confidence that middle-school science teachers are uninformed, silly and infinitely gullible.

In my review of Glencoe's 1999 book, I said its major themes were fakery, phony "science" and deep ignorance [note 4]. Those themes are conspicuous again in the 2002 version, as some examples will demonstrate:

Slovenly Prose, Frequent Obscurity

The prose in Life Science is slovenly and is marked by errors of usage and by frequent obscurity. On page 171 we see that the hominid fossil Lucy "indicates that modern hominids might have evolved from similar ancestors." (Similar to what?) On page 227 both fungi and fungus are used as the singular of fungus. On page 706 some roundworms "rob nutrients" from their hosts. On page 250 a Glencoe writer tells that "Heart problems were treated with foxglove," and then he suddenly asks: "Have all medicinal plants been identified?" (What does that mean?) On page 296, in a goofy article that supposedly tells about genetic engineering, the use of herbicide-resistant plants somehow enables farmers to grow crops with "less chemicals." Later in the same article, a Glencoe faker pretends to cite three reasons why some persons aren't enthusiastic about the genetic engineering of crop-plants. The first reason is that "people might be allergic to modified foods and not realize it until it's too late." (What does that mean?) The second reason is that "genetic engineering is unnatural." (Huh?) The third reason is that "farmers must purchase the patented genetically modified seeds each growing season from the companies that make them, rather than saving and replanting the seeds from their current crops." Perhaps, but this has no particular relevance to genetic engineering. Long before the advent of genetic engineering, companies routinely produced and sold the seeds of hybrid crop-plants that didn't breed true, and companies still are selling such seeds today. Because the hybrids don't breed true, farmers always have had to buy a new supply of seeds for each planting.

In some instances we can tell that the Glencoe writers have deliberately sought to achieve obscurity and to keep students in the dark. As examples:

Spectacular Incoherence

Life Science is spectacularly incoherent. In some places we find stuff that seems to be aimed at 4th-graders. In other places, such as the stupefyingly elaborate section about menstruation, we see stuff that evidently has been transposed from a high-school book.

I infer that the people who turned out material for Life Science toiled in isolation from each other. This seems clear because the book displays repetitions, contradictions and goofy conjunctions of unrelated items. For example:

While I am telling you about some of the illustrations in Life Science, I must describe my favorite. At the back of the book, in an appendix titled "Science Skill Handbook," the section headlined "Interpreting Scientific Illustrations" includes a picture that is billed as a "labeled diagram of the skeletal structure of a blue whale." The diagram incorporates five labels -- "Shoulder blade," "Finger bones," "Ribs," "Pelvis bones" and "Backbone" -- and each label is joined, by a pointer, to some part of the whale's skeleton. So far, so good. But the diagram doesn't show any pelvic bones, and the pointer for the "Pelvis bones" label, like the pointer for the "Backbone" label, leads to a vertebra! Instead of pretending to teach the skill of "Interpreting Scientific Illustrations," Glencoe should be looking for someone who possesses the skill of making scientific illustrations.

Bring on the Gimmicks!

The "Science Skill Handbook" is merely a gimmick, of course. Life Science is jam-packed with gimmicks, and these include phony activities, hot flashes and Internet boxes:

Phony Activities       I've already cited three of the phony activities that appear in Life Science, but I want to note two more:

Hot Flashes       Hot flashes are decorative, ostensibly newsy tidbits that are stuck into stale schoolbooks to make the books seem current and up-to-date. For an example, go to page 415 of Life Science and notice the item about the appearance of deformed frogs in Minnesota in 1995. Bah! Glencoe's writer can't provide a competent survey of the basic biology of amphibians, but he has conjured a hot flash about amphibian monstrosities! For another example, go to page 439 and read, in the section "Origin of Birds," the hot flash about the discovery of Protoavis. Glencoe's writer doesn't understand the significance of Protoavis because he doesn't understand current thinking about the origin of birds, but never mind -- he understands the value of hot flashes for inducing silly teachers to buy trashy books. Now turn to pages 234 and 235, where a Glencoe writer reports that nameless scientists are trying to use "good" fungi to arrest the proliferation of "bad" fungi which are infesting cacao trees. Gullible teachers will be impressed by this hot flash, for it carries the dramatic headline "Chocolate SOS," and the letters "SOS" are more than two inches tall! But the text is incoherent and jumbled, and Glencoe's writer absurdly refers to the infestation of the cacao trees as an "epidemic"; he doesn't know that an epidemic can occur only among humans [note 12]. What those cacao trees are undergoing is not an epidemic but an epiphytotic.

Internet Boxes       Trashy schoolbooks, nowadays, are invariably decorated with inane items that require students to use the Internet. These things serve the same purpose that hot flashes serve: They make the books seem current and up-to-date. Life Science has dozens of them, many of which take the form of boxes that contain instructions like these: "Visit the Glencoe Science Web site at science.glencoe.com for more information about early genetics experiments" (page 127); and "Visit the Glencoe Science Web site at science.glencoe.com to find out more about male and female plants" (page 276); and "Visit the Glencoe Science Web site at science.glencoe.com for information about the uses of chemicals from leech saliva" (page 372).

But why? As far as I've noticed, the boxes consistently fail to suggest why students should want to acquire such pieces of information; and this signals, to any astute reader, that the boxes are nothing but decorative gimmicks. Is there a reason why middle-school students need more information on early genetics experiments? If so, what is the reason? -- and why doesn't that information about early genetics experiments appear in Glencoe's textbook? Is there a reason why middle-school students need information on chemicals taken from leech saliva? If so, what is the reason? -- and why doesn't that information about salivary chemicals appear in Glencoe's textbook? Let me paraphrase what Max G. Rodel wrote in TTL in his review of another Glencoe book that was laden with Internet junk: If a given parcel of information is useful and important, then students should be able to find it in the textbook they are using -- and if it isn't useful and important, then the students shouldn't be led to waste their time by chasing it on the Web [note 13].

"The Nation's Leader"

One more feature of Life Science demands attention -- the boxed advertisement, on the copyright page, for an outfit called The Princeton Review. We read that "The Princeton Review, the nation's leader in test preparation" created certain items that appear in Life Science, and then we read: "Through its association with McGraw-Hill, The Princeton Review offers the best way to help students excel on standardized assessments."

I don't know anything about The Princeton Review, but I will say this: If there are any standardized assessments that dignify the ignorance, fakery and biobabble which pervade Life Science, those assessments should be dumped immediately, and the people who have promoted them should be shunned.


In earlier reviews that I have written for TTL, I have said that certain schoolbooks are so blatantly incompetent and phony that they should be preserved in major libraries. There they would be available to historians and would serve to illustrate various aspects of the corruption that once prevailed in American public education. The books that I have cited in this context include Glencoe Health, Glencoe's Biology: Living Systems, Prentice Hall's World Cultures: A Global Mosaic, McDougal Littell's America's Past and Promise, and Silver Burdett Ginn's World Cultures. I now say that Glencoe Science: Life Science should be honored in the same way.


  1. Reviews of the 1993 book ran in The Textbook Letter, Vol. 3, No. 6, under these headlines: "This Ignorant, Shoddy Book Deserves Only to Be Junked" and "A Glitzy, Mindless Book That Glorifies Ignorance." [return to text]

  2. For a review of the 1995 version, see "The Puffins Don't Help; the Book Is Still Trash" in TTL, Vol. 7, No. 2. [return to text]

  3. For two reviews of the 1999 version, see "Another Fake 'Science' Textbook" and "Where's the Text?" in TTL, Vol. 11, No. 6. [return to text]

  4. See the first of the two reviews cited in note 3, above. [return to text]

  5. Let me quote from chapter XVII in the 1860 edition of Darwin's renowned book The Voyage of the Beagle: "The [reptile] species are not numerous, but the numbers of individuals of each species are extraordinarily great." Darwin emphasized this point by repeating it, later in the same chapter. [return to text]

  6. To learn more about ginseng-root quackery, see "Leading Students into the Clutches of Quacks" in TTL, Vol. 5, No. 3. [return to text]

  7. The Glencoe writers like to give the impression that they are connecting things, and Life Science has five gaudy spreads that purport to deal with items that allegedly are linked. [return to text]

  8. Hopkins was honored for his work with growth-stimulating vitamins. [return to text]

  9. For an article on the Bernoulli-effect fable (and the perpetuation of that fable by the writers of trashy schoolbooks), see "On Wings of Ignorance" in TTL, Vol. 10, No. 5. [return to text]

  10. See the second of the two reviews cited in note 3, above. [return to text]

  11. See the first of the two reviews cited in note 3, above. [return to text]

  12. The word epidemic is a combination of the Greek elements epi- (upon) and demos (people). [return to text]

  13. See " 'interNET' Gimcracks in an Old, Dumb Book," by Max G. Rodel, in TTL, Vol. 10, No. 3. [return to text]

Michael T. Ghiselin is a biologist, a senior research fellow at the California Academy of Sciences, and chairman of the Academy's Center for the History and Philosophy of Science. His research has emphasized comparative anatomy and the evolution of modes of reproduction. His books include The Triumph of the Darwinian Method and Metaphysics and the Origin of Species.

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.


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