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:
One of the most revelatory passages, in my opinion, comes on page
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
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
The frequency of error in the book's text is, as I said, disturbing.
- 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
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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