Wow! Look at all those colors!

Editor's Introduction -- Merrill's high-school book Biology: The Dynamics of Life reminds us of some depressing facts: Because so many of the people who pretend to teach biology in our high schools are ignorant dolts, a publisher can produce a "biology" textbook without bothering to hire any writers or editors who know about biology. If the book is loaded with glitz, with colorful pictures, and with stupid activities that ignoramuses will mistake for science, the publisher can realistically hope that the book will be a commercial success.
from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1991

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Biology: The Dynamics of Life
1991. 850 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-675-06508-9.
Merrill Publishing Company, P.O. Box 508, Columbus, Ohio 43216.
(This company is a part of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill Publishing Company,
which is owned jointly by Macmillan, Inc., and by McGraw-Hill Inc.)

Ignorance and Superstition
in a Gaudy, Glitzy Package

William J. Bennetta

I have seen some shabby biology texts during the past few years, and Biology: The Dynamics of Life is one of the shabbiest. Some other books may rival it for ignorance, foolishness and sheer phoniness, but none surpasses it. Nor does any other book surpass it for gaudiness and glitz.

The graphic design of Merrill's book is garish and chaotic, and the pages are loaded with big, overdone illustrations. The resulting visual confusion and distraction can only impede students' efforts to read and to learn, but I am not sure that students are the people whom Merrill had in mind when this book was being assembled. To me, all that glitz suggests that Merrill was seeking chiefly to impress those gullible educators who "evaluate" a textbook by flipping through it for a minute or two, glancing at pictures and headlines.

If we actually examine the pictures, instead of just glancing at them, we find that a lot of them are worthless. Their relevance to the text is obscure at best, they convey little or no useful information, and their captions are utterly inane. Unusual creatures are shown for their gee-whiz effect, with nothing to tell where they occur, how big they are, or how they make their livings. In various cases we do not even learn their names. Some of the pictures are erroneous, and others are badly misleading -- as when organic structures or whole organisms are shown in false colors, without any notice that the colors are false. The artwork in Merrill's book consists largely of expensive, useless decoration.

While Merrill has given much attention to making this book gaudy, the company seems to have given little attention to anything else -- least of all to hiring qualified writers. The text of Biology: The Dynamics of Life is consistently wretched and is characterized by ridiculous mistakes, distortions and absurdities. To me, these say that Merrill's writers are ignorant of biology and are merely trying to rehash stuff that they have seen or overheard but have not understood. For example:

  • On page 194, I find that the writers do not know what a species is, do not know the difference between a species and a variety, confuse hybridization with artificial selection, and imagine that a the term hybrid means "the result of a cross between closely related species of organisms." This particular demonstration of ignorance comes in a passage about the selective breeding of plants and animals. It convinces me that the writers simply do not know how such breeding is done.

  • On page 239: "As a vertebrate paleontologist, you might study evolutionary trends in dinosaurs and try to shed light on why these creatures became extinct 136 million years ago." But the dinosaurs are not extinct: Birds are dinosaurs, and we see them every day. And though a lot of dinosaurs perished during the great extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period, that episode occurred about sixty-five million years ago. I cannot even guess at where the Merrill writers got the number 136.

  • The writers evidently have heard that insect populations can attain some impressively high densities. They turn this point into the ridiculous, categorical statement that any square kilometer of land "has 10 billion insects" (page 450).

  • On page 452: "The total mass of all insects on Earth is said to be more than the mass of all Earth's populations." But "all Earth's populations" obviously include its populations of insects, so the writers are saying, in effect, that a part is greater than the whole. This is one of many instances in which the writers say things that simply do not make sense. On page 542, for example: "Whales and walruses stir up the ocean floor in search of food and in doing so, increase the productivity of sea life." What in the world does that mean?

  • On page 707, in a confused and opaque passage about trophic relationships: "The biomass of a whale is several times greater than the total biomass of the plankton it consumes." In what period of time? In a day? A month? A lifetime? The writers seem to lack even a minimal familiarity with the principles of ecology.

  • Page 844: The writers evidently have heard that frogs have tympanic membranes (which is true). But because the writers are ignorant of comparative vertebrate anatomy, they define the tympanic membrane as if it were a structure unique to frogs (which is ludicrous).
One of the most revelatory passages, in my opinion, comes on page 483:

Fish have a variety of adaptations for getting food. The archerfish swims to the surface of the water and shoots a drop of water from its mouth toward an unsuspecting insect. . . . Swordfish swim into schools of fish and lash their swordlike snouts back and forth to kill their prey. The anglerfish has a lure projecting from its head and suspended just above its mouth. You can guess how it works!

I've seen that swordfish story before. As far as I know, it is just a vulgar tale, unsupported by scientific observations. The other stuff is nominally right but meaningless. In terms of their feeding tactics, the archerfish and the anglerfishes -- favorites of the people who devise gee-whiz items for Sunday newspapers -- are so aberrant that they can exemplify nothing but themselves. Merrill's writers seem to have no real knowledge of the feeding mechanisms of fishes, and they seem wholly unaware of the large, rich scientific literature about that subject.

Biology: The Dynamics of Life shows anew that the constant companion of ignorance is superstition. One of the more conspicuous superstitions is this book is the notion of nature's ladder, with its mystical corollaries about complexity. Merrill's writers announce, for example, that "Animals are the organisms with the most complex body structures" (page 45). They do not tell what "complex" means, let alone providing sample calculations to show how any structure's complexity can be assessed, and this is not surprising. Their statement is just popular nonsense. [For more about the superstition in question, see the reviews of Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science, earlier in this issue.]

Similarly, the Merrill writers use the phony, ladder-based taxonomy that has a fictitious group called "Simple Animals." Under that heading, they absurdly combine the phylum Porifera with the phylum Cnidaria. Later they lump all "worms" together and then -- incredibly -- lump the "worms" with mollusks!

These antics pale, however, when we see how the writers view the interactions among living things. Their perceptions revolve around natural theology, a body of superstition that gained considerable popularity in Britain during the first half of the 19th century. [See the article "When the Shark Bites with His Teeth, Dear, Remember That It's All for the Best," accompanying this review.]

Merrill's book has 36 things that are presented as laboratory exercises. Each appears on a page that bears the label "BIOLAB," which is printed so that "BlO" is green and "LAB" is black.

If we are not hopelessly dazzled by a silly non-word printed in two colors, and if we actually read the BIOLAB activities, we see that a lot of them are ridiculous and some are phony. Look at the one on page 41. Its headline leads the student to believe that he will discover the answer to a breathtakingly broad and vague question: "Are closely related species more similar than less closely related species?" What really happens is this: Given two insects and a spider (or so the illustration seems to indicate), the student makes some observations that seem to involve assessing similarity. He does nothing to appraise relatedness, however, and so he learns nothing that has anything to do with the opening question. The exercise is stupid and bitterly misleading.

So too is the one on page 490. Again, the headline is a broad, fatuous question: "Do tropical fish prefer specific types of habitat?" The exercise that follows is just nonsense. Anyone who has had experience with common "tropical fish" will know that this "BIOLAB" can produce no meaningful result And the illustration blatantly contradicts the written description.

Biology: The Dynamics of Life is junk and has no business in any biology class.

An Inept, Unacceptable Text
with Handsome Decorations

Ellen C. Weaver

Biology: The Dynamics of Life has some good aspects but does not merit a passing grade. Merrill has made a big investment in illustrations, but the associated captions, as well as the illustrations themselves, too often mislead, misinform and distract the reader. Many of the "BIOLAB" laboratory exercises strike me as futile, boring and profoundly unscientific, and some seem not to have been tried by the people who contrived them. Finally, the book's text has a disturbing number of errors.

Let me first describe some of the features that I admire (and that I hope to see retained if Merrill issues another edition of this book).

The writing is generally clear and only rarely proffers those hideous "clues" by which the writers of science textbooks purport to tell how scientific terms are pronounced. (Where such clues do occur in Merrill's book, they are likely to be wrong and are likely to make erroneous, excessive use of the short-u sound. Hence students are told to pronounce eutrophication as "yoo troh fuh KAY shun," to pronounce abyssal as "uh BIS ul," and to pronounce vacuoles as "VAK yuh wohlz." No kidding! Look at page 83.)

The writers define organic evolution as "a continuing process of genetic change in a population of organisms over long periods of time," and they offer a reasonable account of factors that can affect genetic equilibrium and factors that can lead to speciation. They also offer some discussion of the origin of life, but only in terms of the ideas that were put forth decades ago by Oparin and by Miller and Urey.

I am pleased to see that the carbon-fixing reactions in photosynthesis are labeled "the Calvin cycle" rather than "the dark reactions," and that the activities of mitochondria are explicitly linked to the activities of chloroplasts (page 126). And the writers introduce the idea that mitochondria, chloroplasts and other organelles of eukaryotes may be the relics of ancient, free-living prokaryotes (page 232).

Other valuable features of Biology: The Dynamics of Life include the introductory description of science (starting on page 5), the chapter on basic chemistry, and the margin-notes about derivations of words.

Now, what are the book's major faults? Let me look first at the illustrations, and let me tell right away that none of them has any indication of size or scale. A lot of the things that are shown (especially in micrographs) lie outside of common experience, and pictures of such things are meaningless without statements of size.

Many of the large, handsome illustrations seem to serve decorative purposes only -- they lack captions, and we have no way of knowing what they are supposed to convey. When captions are present, they frequently are silly or totally wrong. For that matter, a lot of the illustrations themselves seem to have been invented by artists who had no knowledge of science:

  • Figure 6-11 (in chapter 6, "Energy in a Cell") misleadingly represents the electron-transport chain as a series of discrete gears that churn out ATP. This might have been appropriate twenty years ago, but it does not reflect our current understanding of how ATP is made.

  • Figure 8-12 purports to show a point mutation and a frameshift mutation, but it shows them occurring in mRNA, not in DNA. The concepts of point and frameshift mutations simply do not apply to mRNA.

  • Figure 9-2 falsely tells that the alleles governing seed-color and seed-texture in garden peas are closely linked. If that were true, seed-color and seed-texture would not have displayed independent assortment during Mendel's famous experiments. But they did, as the text tells on page 182.

  • Figure 13-11 is said to show the unicellular green alga Chlamydomonas, an organism used widely in scientific research and in biology classrooms. Though Chlamydomonas actually has a single, large, cup-shaped chloroplast, Merrill's artists show it with many small, elongated ones.

  • Figure 13-13, purporting to show alternation of generations in an alga, is imaginary. The thing labeled "sporophyte" appears to be a big, green Laminaria, while the thing labeled "gametophyte" is a different species -- apparently a Nereocystis.

Page ii of Biology: The Dynamics of Life lists a number of "content consultants" who seem to hold respectable academic positions. Did these consultants ever see the pictures and the picture-captions?

Some of the laboratory exercises are totally lacking in specificity, and I doubt they were tried before being published. The "BIOLAB" on page 721, for instance, refers vaguely to solutions of a "plant hormone" -- the hormone is not identified. The student must immerse the roots of tomato plants in five different solutions after threading each plant's roots through a hole in a cork. Has anyone tried this? Why does the procedure call for treating only one plant with each solution? What happened to the concept of average effect? Why is the student supposed to make only two measurements of root-length, three weeks apart? I cannot imagine what the student will learn from this exercise, except that "science" is terribly stupid.

The frequency of error in the book's text is, as I said, disturbing. Examples:

  • On page 194 the writers say, "In the past two decades, selective breeding of plant crops has increased their food value for humans." In fact, humans have been selectively breeding plants for this purpose for 10,000 years! The writers then declare: "Almost all the corn [i.e., maize] grown in the United States is hybrid corn. A hybrid is the result of a cross between closely related species of organisms." Not correct. Hybrid corn results from crosses between highly inbred strains of Zea mays, a single species. The hybrid plants are uniform and are much more vigorous than either of the parent strains. Merrill's definition of hybrid is erroneous, and the writers evidently do not know that hybridization between species -- whether in nature or in an agricultural context -- is extremely rare. Nearly all hybrids proceed, as hybrid corn does, from crosses within one species.

  • On page 231 the writers attempt to describe early forms of life, but their account is marred by two false assumptions: that all photosynthetic organisms produce oxygen, and that the first photosynthetic prokaryotes must therefore have been oxygen-makers. (The truth is that modern bacteria include several species that are photosynthetic but do not produce oxygen at all. The first photosynthetic prokaryotes were probably similar to these, and they probably antedated the first oxygen-producers by an eon or more.)

  • Page 270 says that unicellular marine algae inevitably sink to the bottom of the sea because they "lack the means to swim actively upward." This information is in a box marked "Thinking Critically," so let us think critically about it: It leads directly to the conclusion that all unicellular algae must have sunk below the photic levels of the oceans eons ago -- a conclusion that is false. The truth is that flagellated algae, such as Chlamydomonas, can swim actively upward (or in any other direction) toward a source of light, and I often have watched them do so.

There are some good parts in Biology: The Dynamics of Life, and these should be saved for a new edition. In its present form, however, this book should not be used in any school.

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.

Ellen C. Weaver is a professor of biological sciences at San Jose State University. Her scientific specialties are plant physiology and the application of remote sensing to the oceans. She is an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she has served as an advisor to the National Academy of Sciences.


In the time since these reviews were printed, the Merrill Publishing Company has been incorporated into the Glencoe/McGraw-Hill division of The McGraw-Hill Companies, and Glencoe/McGraw-Hill has issued several "new" versions of Biology: The Dynamics of Life. To find reviews of some of these later versions, consult our Index List.


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