A good textbook of general biology

Editor's Introduction -- No textbook is perfect, but some textbooks are certainly good. Consider, for example, Wadsworth Publishing's Biology: Concepts and Applications. Though it has its defects (including the mishandling of some scientific terms), this book is so good, overall, that one of our reviewers recommends it for use in high-school biology courses at all levels -- honors biology, advanced-placement biology, and even 10th-grade introductory biology.
from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1993

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Biology: Concepts and Applications
1991. 599 pages + appendices. ISBN: 0-534-13368-1.
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 10 Davis Drive, Belmont, California, 94002.

I Recommend This Book
to All Teachers of Biology

Ellen C. Weaver

Biology: Concepts and Applications is an excellent book. It is marketed for use in colleges and in advanced-placement high-school courses, but I recommend it wholeheartedly to all teachers of high-school biology -- not just to those who give honors classes or advanced-placement classes. As a text for a regular high-school biology course, it is vastly superior to the dull, pompous and error-ridden books that are offered by most of the schoolbook-publishers.

This is a relatively slim book: 618 pages when the appendices are included, versus the usual 1,000 pages or so. Consequently, most topics are presented in a rather spare way.

The subtitle, Concepts and Applications, is appropriate: The text and special features cover more than 500 applications of biology to the understanding of practical affairs, and the applications are indexed at the end of the book. Subjects such as bulimia, Lyme disease, osteoporosis, sexually transmitted diseases, sickle-cell anemia, the uses of algae, and the abuse of anabolic steroids are discussed concisely and rationally. The author, Cecie Starr, takes a moderately activist stance with respect to major environmental issues such as population growth and the use of pesticides. Her treatment of population is particularly admirable and cogent, making clear that we cannot escape from the inevitable: "Either we make a global effort to limit population growth in accordance with environmental carrying capacity, or we wait until the environment does it for us" (page 504).

Evolution is handled extraordinarily well, in chapters entitled "Microevolution," "Macroevolution" and "Human Evolution: A Case Study." Principles are expounded clearly and are illustrated with specific examples, and though the discussions are brief, they certainly cover the key points. As we would expect in a book of such high quality, evolutionary concepts permeate the entire text. Lamarck is not mentioned at all.

Starr accords respect to all forms of life, and she doesn't render value judgments. She doesn't, for example, classify organisms as "helpful" or "harmful," and she explicitly rejects the notion that bacteria -- with their enormous range of metabolic capabilities -- can be considered "simple" (page 229). The long section on "Animal Structure and Function" uses examples from many divisions of the animal kingdom, though it focuses on the human in its discussion of vertebrates.

In its coverage of human biology, the book is as thorough as any of the high-school biology texts, and it is far better than most of them. Moreover, it doesn't make the mistake of viewing the human as the pinnacle of evolution. I particularly like the treatment of human sexuality, including coitus and the biology of sexually transmitted diseases. Starr doesn't mince words as she describes the misery wrought by STDS. She tells of technological methods of preventing conception, but she also makes clear that the only truly certain method is abstinence.

As a plant biologist, I examined Starr's treatment of plants with particular care. Her presentation of the process of photosynthesis is simplified but accurate. So are her passages about the structure of plants and the roles that plants play in ecosystems.

The "Commentary" features that occur throughout the book are usually arresting, and I was particularly delighted by the one on page 242 -- a quirky look at some of the fungi. "Who among us," Starr asks, "can praise the fungal species that cause athlete's foot . . . ? Which home gardeners can wax poetic about black spot or powdery mildew on their roses . . . ?" But her real point is stated at the start: "You know you are a serious student of biology when you can view organisms objectively in terms of their roles in nature, not in terms of the impact they have on humans generally and yourself in particular."

The book is abundantly illustrated, and the captions seem to be invariably informative and pertinent. Most of the micrographs have scales. Those that don't should be furnished with scales in the next edition, and so should some other illustrations of unfamiliar things. (How big is that wolf spider on page 275, or that marine copepod on the same page?)

The editing has been meticulous, and I have found no errors.

In my judgment, all the people who were involved in the making of this book deserve to be congratulated on a first-class product.

A Pedagogic Perspective

Let me now elaborate on what I said at the start of this review: Although Biology: Concepts and Applications is a college text, it should be considered by all high-school teachers of biology. I suspect that some of my readers who teach 10th-grade biology will object: Students in the 10th grade probably know little or no chemistry, and their vocabularies are smaller than those of seniors. Won't such students be overwhelmed by a college book? Yes, they will -- if their teacher expects them to master all of it. But that is true for all biology books, including the typical high-school biology book that has 1,000 pages. No matter what book the students use, the teacher will have to direct their reading and emphasize particular chapters and ideas and topics. The big advantage of using Biology: Concepts and Applications is that the teacher can be sure that students will get information that is sound and up-to-date.

Is a grasp of chemistry necessary for understanding this book? In some places, probably so -- in the chapter on "Cell Structure and Function," for example, or the chapter on "Ground Rules of Metabolism." But many other chapters, including those that survey the various kingdoms of the living world, are chiefly descriptive and require no chemical knowledge. In any event, this book (like the typical high-school biology text) includes some introductory chemistry, for students who want to delve.

Is the "reading level" appropriate for 10th-graders? According to the usual formulas, maybe not. To me, however, the prose in this well written book seems far more readable and comprehensible than the disconnected sentences and rambling, incoherent paragraphs found in the usual high-school biology textbook. In Biology: Concepts and Applications students will find models to emulate as they do their own writing, and they will learn that good writing and good science go together.

A Solid and Reliable Book,
but Sometimes Old-Fashioned

Michael T. Ghiselin

Biology: Concepts and Applications is an introductory college textbook, but it is also appropriate for an advancement-placement high-school course -- provided that the students really have the necessary preparation. It has been written with the assumption that its readers already have studied basic high-school biology as well as some chemistry.

The author, Cecie Starr, offers a preface that tells what she set out to do when she wrote the book, and her objectives seem most admirable: Stress key concepts; don't overload the student with technical terms; strike a proper balance between accuracy and simplification without patronizing the student or writing teleologically; and so on.

Starr has had help from experts. (For example, the paleontologist John Sepkowski assisted in producing a good diagram, on pages 198 and 199, that shows how animals and plants have diversified and have suffered mass extinctions while Earth's crust has moved around during the past 700 million years.) As a result, this book generally provides solid and reliable information, rather than myths and misconceptions that will have to be unlearned later.

A lot of material, some of it rather difficult, has been packed into a relatively small space. Even with appendices, the book has fewer than 700 pages. Some other college textbooks of biology, and even some high-school texts, have 1,000 pages or more.

Starr's book is tied together, with considerable success, by two main themes: evolution and energy flow. In choosing specific topics, however, Starr has put her main emphasis on physiology, especially as it relates to understanding the human body, human health, and environmental issues. Such anthropocentrism carries an intellectual price, and Starr has been willing to pay it. She evidently assumes that this meets the demands of her market.

The evolutionary theme is introduced at the outset and remains strong throughout the text, though the main example of evolutionary history is the history of us primates. While this is a reflection of Starr's anthropocentric approach, it also has its merits: Pointing out that we get backaches because our ancestors switched to bipedal locomotion is a good way to make readers aware of our evolutionary legacy.

The survey of animal diversity tries to show where certain anatomical and physiological innovations, such as the addition of an anus to the gut, have come into the picture. Although Starr attempts to stress the point that such changes have occurred in many groups (along with vast diversification of size, shape and mode of life), it is impossible to do justice to this matter without citing more examples than can fit into so compact a book.

The treatment of biological classification is a bit old-fashioned. Although the text clearly states that classification is based on evolution, there is no clear statement of what the relationship between classification and evolution is supposed to be, except that it has something to do with lineages and common ancestors. Students are left in the dark, and the examples do not provide the help that students need if they are to understand what classification is all about. (Even the chapter about human evolution is inadequate in this respect. The diagrams that depict primate phylogenies are hard to follow, evidently because the artist was not properly supervised.) This book also needs to be updated with respect to important developments in the application of molecular techniques to the reconstruction of evolutionary histories.

The passage about dinosaurs is another troubling matter. Starr treats the dinosaurs as if all of them became extinct at the end of the Mesozoic Era. This is not what happened, however, and some of the Mesozoic dinosaurs' descendants -- the modern birds -- are still with us. Starr is apparently unaware that birds constitute a modified lineage of dinosaurs.

Confusing Terms

This book would be better if Starr had taken better account of one of the imperfections of language: A word may be used in somewhat different ways by different persons and in different disciplines.

Consider the word population. In evolutionary biology, a "population" is a group of organisms that form a reproductive community. The population may comprise only a handful of individuals, living in an area of a few square meters; or it may comprise millions of individuals, spread over a whole continent; or it may even embrace all the members of a species (such as our own) that occurs all over the globe. An ecologist, however, may use "population" to denote the organisms that live in some particular area -- an area that the ecologist may have delimited arbitrarily, on the basis of convenience, without regard to any biological reality.

These different meanings of population lead Starr into confusion. In chapter 14, "Microevolution," a list of "Key Concepts" on page 172 properly reflects the point that populations, not organisms, are the things that evolve. The text on page 177, however, defines a population as "a group of individuals occupying a given area and belonging to the same species." But that is, of course, an ecologist's definition of population, not an evolutionary biologist's. What is a "given area," and by whom is it "given"? These points are left as mysteries. Much later, on page 492, Starr repeats the ecological definition of population and then says that "the population (not the individual or the species) is the unit of evolution." But how can that be? In some instances, a species is a population. And what is meant by the notion that species are not units of evolution? Aren't they units? And don't they evolve? Of course they are, and of course they do!

Starr's mishandling of symbiosis and related words is particularly depressing. Originally, symbiosis meant what its etymology suggests: "living together." It was a general term that embraced various associations between individuals belonging to different species -- associations such as parasitism, commensalism and mutualism. In parasitism, one partner benefits while the other is harmed. An example is the association between a human and the tapeworm that lives in his gut, or the association between a human and the mosquito that feeds on his blood. In mutualism, both the partners benefit. An example here is the association between a plant and the bee that visits the plant's flowers -- the bee gets a serving of nectar while the plant benefits by having its pollen dispersed. In commensalism, the partners are "mess-mates." One benefits while the other is unaffected, as when a small fish accompanies a big one and eats scraps of food that the big one leaves.

Unfortunately, the original definition of symbiosis became blurred some decades ago, and the word took on a much narrower meaning, at least in schoolbooks and in popular speech: It came to denote only mutualism. Now, however, the original meaning is being restored, and the habit of treating symbiosis as a synonym for mutualism has generally been purged from college-level textbooks. In this respect, Starr is very much behind the times.

She also seems to be confused about commensalism, for she says that an association is commensal if one partner benefits while the other is not helped or harmed "much" (page 508). This, however, violates the basic definition. Many crabs that live in the gill cavities of mollusks were formerly called commensals -- but since they steal a fair amount of food and also damage the mollusks' tissues, an up-to-date author treats them as parasites, albeit of a mild sort.

I should emphasize that parasitism, mutualism and the other interspecific relationships are indeed relationships. They are not "interactions," as Starr calls them. The distinction between relationships and interactions is important, and a textbook that fails to honor it can confuse the student. In the case of a man and a mosquito, the relationship between the partners is parasitism, but the partners' interaction consists of specific forms of behavior -- the mosquito seeks and finds the man, and then tries to draw some of his blood, while the man tries to evade, or even to kill, the mosquito. In the case of a flowering plant and a bee, the relationship between the partners is mutualism, but the partners' interaction consists of an exchange of materials. In the case of a small fish and a big one, the relationship is commensalism, but the partners don't engage in any direct interactions and don't have any direct effect on each other.

I acknowledge that it isn't easy to understand and define a lot of the technical words that are used in science. But if we expect students to master the vocabulary and to be examined on the proper use of terms, we must provide thoughtful, effective explanations of what those terms mean.

Ellen C. Weaver is a professor of biological sciences, emerita, from 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, she has served as an advisor to the National Academy of Sciences, and she is a past president of the Association for Women in Science.

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 The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex.


Wadsworth Publishing issued a second edition of Biology: Concepts and Applications in 1994. A review of the 1994 edition appeared in The Textbook Letter for January-February 1994.


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