from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1992
Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses
An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life
1992. 449 pages. ISBN: 0-697-05143-9.
Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 2460 Kerper Boulevard, Dubuque, Iowa
A Sound Survey of Life
in Marine Ecosystems
Gary C. Williams
Wm. C. Brown's An Introduction to the Biology of Marine
Life is similar, in many ways, to Mosby's Marine
Biology, the book that I reviewed in the March-April issue of
The Textbook Letter. Each book is well written,
competently researched, and comprehensive in its coverage of
organismal biology, ecology, and the effects of human activities
on marine environments. Each shows considerable variation in the
quality of the illustrations that augment its text. Each has a
good glossary and provides good reference materials.
More to the point, each book has its own strengths and
weaknesses, and neither really outshines the other in overall
quality or in its suitability for use in a high-school honors
course or an advanced-placement course. I would recommend either
one to the teacher of such a course, for both are good books.
With a few exceptions, the differences between the two have more
to do with style than with content, and a teacher can pick the one
that more closely fits the course outline that the teacher has
The text of Brown's book is well organized and provides an
admirable survey of marine biology from an ecological
perspective. The opening chapter describes the ocean as a
physical setting, then chapter 2 introduces some important
biological concepts. The topics here include the adaptive value
of sex, the nature of trophic relationships, and the biotic
aspects of marine ecosystems. Chapters 3 and 4 survey some
prominent groups of marine organisms, leading to a discussion (in
chapter 5) of primary productivity. This discussion includes a
good section about the periodic ocean-warming event known as El
Niño. Chapters 6 through 9 deal with specific marine habitats,
giving attention to estuarine, benthic, intertidal and coral-reef
communities. Chapters 10 through 12 look, in some detail, at
zooplankton, fishes and the marine mammals. Finally, chapters 13
and 14 give lucid accounts of some human impacts on the bounty of
the sea -- a bounty that once seemed limitless.
These last two chapters seem particularly timely and valuable.
In our overpopulated world, the overexploitation of marine
resources can create, and already has created, disasters. This
is illustrated nicely in chapter 13 ("Fisheries") by an account
of how the Peruvian anchoveta fishery collapsed, in the 1970s,
under the effects of protracted, unrestrained overfishing. The
chapter also tells about the "strip mining of the sea" --
commercial "fishing" with gigantic, monofilament drift-nets that
indiscriminately trap and kill marine animals of all kinds, even
birds and mammals.
Chapter 14 ("Ocean Pollution") furnishes more information about
what we are doing to marine habitats and to the things that live
in them. It describes some effects of sewage discharges,
industrial-chemical discharges, oil spills, and the dumping of
plastic debris, and it concludes with an especially erudite
section titled "Developing a Sense of Stewardship." Here we see
how insensitive and contradictory our practices have become:
Humans try to take edible resources from the oceans in greater
and greater amounts while simultaneously fouling the very systems
that bring those resources forth.
As a specialist in the biology of coral reefs, I must comment
that the coral-reef chapter in An Introduction to the Biology
of Marine Life is a fine example of science writing. It
provides up-to-date information on the zoology of reef-forming
corals, the processes by which reefs come into being, the
influence of plate tectonics on reefs, the biotic and
geomorphological zonation of reefs, the adaptive value of
coloration in coral-reef fishes, and some of the symbiotic
relationships in which reef fishes participate. The drawback to
this otherwise first-rate chapter is that it fails to define and
differentiate the four major kinds of corals (the hydrocorals,
black corals, octocorals and hard corals) and fails to make clear
that only the hard corals build reefs. (The other corals may
inhabit reefs but are not directly involved in forming them.)
The text about the biology and morphology of "corals" applies
only to the hard corals, but the reader may well imagine,
wrongly, that it applies to corals in general.
When the book is viewed as a whole, its weak link seems to be
chapter 3, "An Overview of Marine Animals." A student who is
struggling to get a handle on the bewildering diversity of marine
animals needs a text that defines the various groups concisely
and differentiates them clearly. In this book, however, many
animal phyla are described in a very superficial manner. Here is
one respect in which this book differs substantively from the
volume offered by Mosby. In the Mosby book, each phylum is
clearly defined in two or three sentences, set in boldface type.
One of the strengths of An Introduction to the Biology of
Marine Life lies in its design. The layout is well done,
reflecting considerable care and thought -- as we might expect in
a book that is now in its fifth edition and presumably has
undergone gradual improvement.
The color photographs generally are good and are reproduced at
sizes sufficient to preserve detail. (See, for example, figure
10.4, showing three large, gelatinous, planktonic animals.)
Unfortunately, however, there are some exceptions to this rule.
Figure 3.19, a poor photograph of sipunculid worms, tells us very
little about the organisms in question -- a good, well labeled
drawing would have been more informative. In figure 8.20
(showing green anemones) and figure 8.19a (showing brown algae)
the contrast is so low that virtually no information is conveyed.
In figure 8.14 (showing aggregate anemones), figure 8.16 (showing
the brown alga Fucus) and figure 8.19b (showing an
intertidal scene), parts of each photograph are obviously out of
Another irritating feature of the artwork is that some drawings
lack labels. Figure 3.9, for example, comprises two fine
drawings of nematocysts -- but nothing is labeled, so the value
of the figure is markedly impaired. Figure 7.11 shows the
planktonic larvae of a polychaete, a sea urchin, a crab and a
snail, but with no labeling to tell the important names (such as
pluteus, zoea and veliger) by which planktonic
larvae are known.
Even with these failings -- which are mostly minor and can be
rectified easily when the book goes into yet another edition --
An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life is a solid
text. It can furnish the advanced student with a lot of
knowledge, soundly presented, about marine organisms, the marine
environment, and human influence on both.
A Book That Starts Poorly
but Gets Better and Better
William J. Bennetta
Like Mosby's Marine Biology, which I reviewed in these
pages six months ago, Brown's An Introduction to the Biology
of Marine Life is a college text that also is sold for use in
marine-biology courses offered by high schools. Like Mosby's
book, it is generally current, factually solid, and appropriate
for bright high-school students who already have had courses in
geography and general biology. The two books are comparable in
scope and organization, but their viewpoints are somewhat
different. Mosby's book puts a bit more emphasis on organismal
biology and the phenomenon of adaptation. Brown's gives more
attention to ecology and the dynamics of marine ecosystems.
An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life starts
poorly but then gets better and better.
Chapter 1, "The Ocean as Habitat," begins with a historical
summary that gives proper weight to plate tectonics, making clear
that ocean basins are continuously changing. Then it tries, with
less success, to outline some of the oceans' physical and
chemical features that have biological importance. Some of the
passages here, such as those dealing with wave dynamics or with
certain properties of seawater, are so abbreviated that they
appear to have little value.
Chapter 2 has the title "Some Ecological and Biological
Concepts," an odd phrase that signals the book's emphasis on
ecology but also suggests, falsely, that ecology may exist by
itself, separate from biology. The title aside, the chapter is
unacceptably superficial and recalls the festivals of
"mentioning" that we often see in middle-school books. It
introduces far too many terms, with too little explanation, too
little exemplification, too little regard for helping students to
gain a real grasp of ideas.
Chapter 3, "An Overview of Marine Animals," is similarly
unacceptable, even as an overview. Many taxonomic groups are
mentioned, few are treated adequately, and some are not even
described competently. The entire presentation looks hasty and
seems not to be informed by a real understanding and appreciation
of the diversity of animal life in the oceans. Like the two that
precede it, this chapter is a candidate for rewriting.
With chapter 4, "Marine Primary Producers," things improve
dramatically, and we encounter some of the ecological ideas that
will pervade and unify the remainder of the text. The writing
becomes smoother, more confident and quite readable, and the
selection of material is knowledgeable and skillful.
Those features -- unifying ideas, good writing, and skillful
choice of material -- generally persist through the rest of the
book's fourteen chapters, which also display great accuracy. As
a result, these chapters can be fine sources of information for
any middle-school teacher who gives a life-science course, or any
high-school teacher who gives a general-biology course.
Chapters 10 through 12 deal specifically with animals, the
organisms in which I am particularly interested. Chapter 10,
"Zooplankton," is good work, but I am disappointed by its
concentrating so heavily on the holoplankton (organisms that are
planktonic throughout their lives). The existence of
meroplankton (organisms that are planktonic only while they are
larvae) is acknowledged but not developed. Some consideration of
the meroplankton would have created opportunities to connect this
chapter with, say, chapter 6 ("Estuaries") or chapter 11 ("The
Chapter 11 focuses strongly on fishes. It is little short of
superb, and reading it has been a pleasure. (The pleasure was
all the greater, I suspect, because I so often have had to read
the claptrap that passes for ichthyology in phony life-science
texts. See, for example, my review of Prentice Hall Life
Science in The Textbook Letter, March-April 1991.)
Let me extend special praise to the sections on buoyancy-control,
on migration, and on modes of reproduction.
Chapter 12 ("Marine Tetrapods") represents one of the few cases
in which the choice of material is seriously wrong. Only four
pages of text are given to birds and reptiles -- the rest of the
chapter (32 pages) is an excellent treatment of marine mammals.
Yet as the text itself declares, there is a greater diversity of
marine birds than of mammals, and the birds' "impact on marine
communities can be considerable." I hope that this chapter will
be revised, to give the marine birds the attention that they
deserve, when the next edition is being written.
The book's emphasis on ecology culminates in its last two
chapters: Chapter 13 deals with fisheries, chapter 14 with marine
pollution. I have given special attention to the chapter on
fisheries, which is outstanding. It traces some recent history
of commercial fishing on the high seas, links information about
fisheries to information about the growth of the human
population, and even offers a page about drift-nets -- those
monstrously destructive devices, sometimes called "curtains of
death," that are favored by fishing fleets from Japan, Taiwan and
South Korea. Most importantly, perhaps, this chapter examines
the overexploitation and destruction of fisheries, and it
explains such destruction by invoking "the tragedy of the
commons." [See "Tragedy Made Simple," in this issue.]
That explanatory principle is something that all students, not
just those in marine-biology classes, must understand.
Though An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life has
its flaws, it is (all in all) a good and useful book. I
Gary C. Williams is a marine biologist and a department chairman
at the California Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco. His
research program includes the systematics and biogeography of
marine coelenterates and mollusks, as well as aspects of
coral-reef biology. His current field work is focused on coral reefs
of the western Pacific.
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.