from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1991
Reviewing a middle-school book in life science
Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science
1990. 632 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-382-17493-3.
Silver, Burdett and Ginn Inc., 250 James Street, Morristown, New Jersey 07960. (The
spellings given here are those shown in the book: The name of the company has a comma
after the word Silver and has the word and spelled out, but the title of the book has
no comma and uses an ampersand for and. Silver, Burdett and Ginn is a part of
Simon & Schuster, which is a part of Paramount Communications Inc.)
Evading Basic Information
and Confusing the Student
Michael T. Ghiselin
In making a subject intelligible to students, one may have to
simplify a bit and may have to postpone certain topics until the
students are ready to understand them. To do so without introducing
errors or distortions is a challenge, and the writers of Silver
Burdett & Ginn Life Science have proved themselves unworthy of
This book is trash. Students who begin in ignorance will end not
only ignorant but confused and misinformed as well.
We cannot say that the Silver, Burdett writers have failed to follow
the rules. Quite the contrary. They have done what the writers of
life-science books have been doing for many years now: They have
produced a tedious list of things to he memorized, and they have
decorated it with some entertaining curiosities, while only
pretending to give attention to unifying concepts.
In chapter 2, about classification, the writers conceal the fact
that the basis of classification is common ancestry. The student
reads that organisms are linked taxonomically if they share traits
and are "closely related," but "related" is left undefined and there
is no explanation of why some traits matter and others do not. In
short, there is no evolutionary perspective whatsoever.
The writers do not introduce evolution (or "change," as they call
it) until chapter 16, where they again fail to make explicit the
connection between evolution and classification. Indeed, the idea of
common ancestry is artlessly replaced by the idea of change through
time, which is, of course, only part of it.
In surveying the animals, the writers place those organisms in a
linear sequence -- "simple" ones first, "complex" ones later --
following an ancient tradition that was demolished by Karl Ernst
von Baer and Georges Cuvier in the 1820s and has had no intellectual
respectability ever since. The only place where we find anything
resembling a phylogenetic tree is in Appendix 1, where a "Taxonomy
Tree" tells us that sharks are related more closely to tigers than
to penguins! The writers seem to imagine that sharks and tigers
possess some close affinity because both sharks and tigers can be
big and fierce, but that is not how taxonomists classify things.
One form of "dumbing down" that I find particularly disconcerting is
the pointless substitution of vernacular words and made-up phrases
for legitimate technical expressions. Silver Burdett & Ginn Life
Science does this in several ways. In some cases, the writers
use an anglicized form of a technical term while avoiding the term
itself: Thus they teach the student the words arthropod and
mollusk but not the formal names Arthropoda and
Mollusca. In other cases, scientific words are gratuitously
replaced by cumbersome phrases. Snails and their allies, for
example, are labeled the "stomach-footed mollusks," instead of being
called the Gastropoda (or even the gastropods); and the student gets
the false impression that "stomach-footed mollusks" is a term used
by scientists. Even worse, the writers invent and name groups of
organisms that are wholly fictitious: Such groups as the "Simple
Invertebrates," the "Complex Invertebrates" and the "Warm-Blooded
Vertebrates," for example, are quite unknown to science.
The sections about diversity are not adequately integrated with the
rest of the text, and there is so much repetition of material that
the text seems to have been written by a committee that never met.
Nor is it merely chaotic and confusing. It is also boring and
unimaginative. Consider a definition that appears on page 492 (and
has already appeared in at least one other life-science book):
Purporting to tell about human reproductive systems, the writers
define the penis as "the male organ through which semen passes to
the outside of the body." A young reader, and especially one who has
had some hands-on experience with the organ in question, may well
wonder why the writers do not tell about what comes before and after
The book does have a lot of material about sex and reproduction, but
much of it is grossly misleading or downright wrong. On page 222:
"Many invertebrates can reproduce by both asexual and sexual means.
Asexual reproduction involves only one parent. In sexual
reproduction a sperm and an egg join to produce a new
individual" (italics in the original). The last two sentences,
incongruous as they are, tell us that the writers think that a sperm
and an egg necessarily come from two different parents. That is
false. When a hermaphroditic animal fertilizes itself, each
offspring arises from the joining of a sperm and an egg but has only
one parent. Perhaps we should not be surprised that the writers are
so confused, for they seem not to know that hermaphroditism is a
widespread and important phenomenon among animals. It does not
appear anywhere in their book.
On page 331 the writers define regeneration as "a type of asexual
reproduction in which a new organism can grow from a body part."
That is flatly wrong. Regeneration is not a form of reproduction at
all. Lizards regenerate lost tails (and crabs and starfishes and
salamanders regenerate lost limbs, and humans regenerate damaged
livers), but they are not reproducing when they do so. To make
things worse, the writers assert that asexual reproduction "occurs"
in "simple animals, protists, and monerans," and they provide an
illustration labeled "Regeneration in a starfish." But a starfish is
not a moneran, a protist or even (according to this book) a simple
animal. In Silver, Burdett's bizarre taxonomy, echinoderms are
I repeat: This book is trash.
Dispensing Phony "Science"
and a Contempt for Nature
William J. Bennetta
The content of Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science is
exemplified very well by the paragraph that introduces the unit
The great variety of animal life has long been a
source of wonder and delight for many people. There are over a
million different kinds of animals on the earth. Some are quite
familiar to you. Others are rare and unusual. The Loch Ness monster
and the abominable snowman are animals whose existence has not yet
been proven. In this unit you will study major groups of animals and
see how they are alike and how they differ.
Notice two points. First, the paragraph does not name any real
organism but cites two creatures from the realm of fable. Second, it
clearly conveys the idea that those fabulous creatures exist, and so
deserve to be called "animals" in a scientific context, even if
evidence of their existence has "not yet" shown up. Silver,
Burdett's writers apparently think that "science" is the business of
believing attractive stories -- and evidence be damned.
That notion pervades Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science
thoroughly. This is not a book of science but a book of credulity
and buffoonery, reflecting all the practices that the publishers of
worthless "life science" books have been following for years.
Foremost among these, surely, is the use of writers who are
abysmally ignorant of the subject matter. As soon as we start
reading, we see that Silver, Burdett's text is wrong, wrong, wrong.
We see also that the writers are recycling stale nonsense and
fantasies -- stuff they presumably have copied from other
schoolbooks that were devised by other ignoramuses. Chapter 1, for
instance, has the usual rubbish about the scientific method:
It tells students that all science consists of controlled
experiments, performed according to a simple-minded recipe. That
story was silly on the day when it was dreamed up and is silly still
-- regardless of how often it has been copied and recopied by
schoolbook-company buffoons. Chapter 2 purports to be about
classification. It is more rubbish. Nowhere do I find a coherent
expression of the principle that classification is historical, that
its guiding concept is organic evolution, and that its aim is to
What bothers me most about Silver, Burdett's text, however, is not
that it is ignorant but that it is phony and pernicious.
As far as I can tell, this book and the others like it share one
grand objective -- to equip students with a contempt for nature as a
whole and especially for anything that is alive but not human. If
that is indeed the goal, we need not be surprised that these books
are the way they are. They pretend to describe nature and science,
but they are built around anthropocentric superstitions that
contravene nature and will ruin anyone's efforts to learn or teach
One of those superstitions to which I refer forms the axis of
Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science, for this book is devoted
to the old idea of "nature's ladder" -- the notion that Earth's
organisms constituted a single, continuous series, from very "low"
and "simple" ones to "high" and "complex" ones. Each organism's
place on the ladder, along with its presumed importance in nature,
depended on how closely the organism seemed to resemble the
"highest" creature of all -- the adult, male, European human (or
AMEH, as we may call him).
Science discarded that notion in the early 19th century, because it
clearly was wrong, but Silver, Burdett's writers are still promoting
it. Hence chapter 10 is about "Simple Invertebrates" (including such
organisms as octopuses!) while chapter 11 is about "Complex
Invertebrates" (including insects and starfishes). The writers do
not say what "simple" or "complex" means, and with good reason: As
descriptors of animals, those terms have no meaning at all -- nor is
there any way to show that an insect is "complex" but an octopus is
not. Silver, Burdett's stuff is pure superstition.
Moving up Silver, Burdett's ladder we find a rung that bears both
the agnathans (fancifully labeled as "jawless fishes") and the
cartilaginous fishes. The lumping of these two classes falsely
implies that they are comparably primitive. Each class gets one
page. Each is apparently incapable of reproduction, for the writers
say nothing about how agnathans or cartilaginous fishes may perform
that function. (I am ignoring an introductory passage on "Traits of
Fish," on pages 274 and 275. It is so stupid that I cannot tell to
which class, if any, its nonsense is supposed to apply.)
On the next rung are the bony fishes. These too are apparently
incapable of reproduction, but they get three pages (278 through
280). They presumably deserve more attention and admiration because
they show two major features (jaws and true bone) that also occur in
They are not, however, so admirable that Silver, Burdett's writers
have actually tried to learn about them. Page 280 says that a bony
fish has an air bladder: "The air bladder contains gas and helps the
fish stay at a certain depth in the water [?] without using much
energy [?]. As the fish changes depths, the amount of gas in the air
bladder changes." The writers now pose a question to the student:
"As a fish swims from a greater to a lesser depth, would the amount
of gas in the air bladder increase or decrease?" The question is
absurd and unanswerable: The writers do not know the relevant
ichthyology or physics.
Higher up on the imaginary ladder we find the amphibians. These
can reproduce! And they receive four pages, a generous award
that must reflect the fact that many amphibians have lungs and
limbs, just as the AMEH does. We are now getting to the really
proper animals. Even so, Silver, Burdett's text about
amphibians is inadequate, misleading and often silly.
Up another rung, to what Silver, Burdett's writers call "reptiles."
These are said to comprise the dinosaurs, the turtles, the
crocodilians, the snakes and the lizards. The writers fail to tell
that the dinosaurs include (as an important subgroup) the birds.
This failure is hardly surprising. In the liturgy of the ladder,
birds are deemed to be especially admirable and man-like, chiefly
because they are endothermic; so they must be decisively separated
from "reptiles," which are deemed to be lowly.
The reptiles get slightly more space than the amphibians got, and
the text acknowledges that reptiles can reproduce. The writers
evidently do not know much about this, however, for they believe
that all reptiles lay eggs. That is quite false, but it presumably
helps to sustain belief in nature's ladder. (The idea that the
vertebrates represent a linear progression -- a progression in which
organisms become increasingly man-like -- collapses if we notice
that some humble, ectothermic reptiles give birth to live young
while all those glorious, endothermic birds lay eggs. In fact, it
collapses as soon as we notice that some fishes give birth to
Now climb higher. The birds get seven pages, including a long
passage about migration -- a topic that the writers have entirely
ignored in their "information" about the ectotherms. And there is a
full page, with a cross-sectional diagram, about bird eggs. Needless
to say, no such attention has been granted to fish eggs, amphibian
eggs or reptile eggs.
Climb higher. And here they are: the mammals -- sitting only one
rung from the top of the ladder and commanding nine pages!
The top rung, of course, is reserved for man, who gets pages by the
If you think that Silver, Burdett's devotion to an old superstition
is funny, or that making a "science" book fit this superstition is
harmless, think again. Think of how perpetuation of the ladder
requires gross misrepresentations and the wholesale suppression of
information about the diversity of life on Earth. Think of what it
does to the student who is particularly interested in some group of
organisms that the ladder-peddlers dismiss as unworthy of any
serious notice. And please think back to the Reagan Administration,
when some primitives proposed amending the Endangered Species Act to
give greatest protection to birds and mammals, less to "lower"
vertebrates, and least (if any) to things that had no bones. The
proposal failed after it was disgraced by scientists and
environmentalists, who pointed out that it had no basis in science
or in any imaginable principle of environmental management. It was
based on nothing but the same pretension that Silver, Burdett is
dispensing -- that organisms are innately more important, less
important or worthless, according to how man-like they are.
As I've said, that particular proposal failed. The potential for
such idiotic mischief remains, however, and the potential can only
increase if schools disseminate the bogus "science" represented by
Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science.
Michael T. Ghiselin is a biologist, a historian of science, and a
senior research fellow at the California Academy of Sciences. His
interests include systematics, reproductive biology and comparative
anatomy. His books include The Triumph of the Darwinian
Method and The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of
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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