A new edition of a good general-biology book

Editor's Introduction -- Here's a review of the second edition of Biology: Concepts and Applications, a compact, competent textbook issued by Wadsworth Publishing.
from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1994

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Biology: Concepts and Applications
1994. 645 pages + appendices. ISBN: 0-534-17616-X.
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 10 Davis Drive, Belmont, California, 94002.

This Second Edition Keeps
the Excellence of the First

Ellen C. Weaver

Biology: Concepts and Applications is an introductory college textbook, but it is also sold for use in high schools. The first edition, dated in 1991, was outstanding. When I reviewed it in The Textbook Letter, I recommended it strongly and said that it could be used not only in high-school honors courses or advanced-placement courses but even in regular, 10th-grade biology classes.

[Editor's note: Two reviews of the 1991 edition appeared in TTL for July-August 1993, under these headlines: "I Recommend This Book to All Teachers of Biology" and "A Solid and Reliable Book, Sometimes Old-Fashioned."]

The new edition, dated in 1994, shows many revisions, but the book has retained its excellence.

Biology is a deep, broad discipline that spans many subdisciplines and deals with countless aspects of nature -- and a typical high-school biology textbook tries to mention all of them. As a result, a typical book has about 1,000 pages and presents far more material than a student can read (let alone understand) in one school year. The first task for a teacher who uses such a book is to prune it down, deciding which topics will be covered thoroughly in class, which topics will be treated in passing, and which topics will be omitted.

In contrast to a conventional, overstuffed book, the 1994 edition of Biology: Concepts and Applications contains only 645 pages of text. (The earlier version had 599.) The book's author, Cecie Starr, has cut biology down to a manageable size, selecting the material that, in her view, the student needs to know. Yes, she has given short shrift to some topics that may seem exciting or transcendentally important to biologists who are working along the frontiers of science, but the job of an introductory text is to impart the basics. The basics do not change much, and they can be as exciting to a beginner as brand-new findings are to a professional biologist.

The 1994 book continues Starr's strong emphasis on the applications of biological knowledge. Her continual linking of science to society is, I believe, an admirable device for keeping students interested. However, Starr does not adopt a human-centered perspective or pander to anthropocentrists. On the contrary, she reminds us again and again that nature does not exist for the benefit of mankind.

While the text proper deals with formal biology, a number of "Focus" essays explain things that are going on in the real world. Some of the essays explore how biologists do their work, others look at environmental affairs or medical topics or ethical issues. Starr has also provided a series of chapter-opening vignettes, each of which tries to entice students by telling a little about some particularly engaging topic -- e.g., a carnivorous plant, the sexual plasticity of limpets, the famed Africanized bees of South America. The vignette that deals with chocolate is teasingly titled "Chocolate from the Tree's Point of View," and it includes an important lesson: When we think about the interactions between humans and domesticated plants, we usually focus on the benefits that such interactions have conferred on the humans -- but the plants have profited too. Cacao trees, orange trees and other crop plants are now more numerous and more widely distributed than they ever would have been if they hadn't become involved in a mutual-exploitation arrangement with us.

The book's overall content and organization haven't been changed, and there are only a few differences between the chapter titles in the 1994 book and the chapter titles that Starr used in 1991. Close comparison, however, discloses that Starr and her editors have scrutinized almost everything and have made many revisions in text, captions and quiz questions.

One serious disappointment is that a lot of the micrographs still lack any index of size or scale. I hope that, in the next edition, Starr will correct this fault and will indicate size or scale on every illustration that shows anything which stands outside of common experience.

Because I am particularly interested in photosynthesis, I have given special attention to chapter 5, "Energy-Acquiring Pathways." The "Key Concepts" section is similar to the corresponding section in the 1991 book, but with some changes in wording -- for example, it now speaks of "carbon-based compounds" rather than "organic compounds." The overview of photosynthesis now gives a little more information, but the chapter still divides the chemistry of photosynthesis into "Light-Dependent Reactions" and "Light-Independent Reactions." The carbon-fixing reactions are not truly "light-independent," because light is needed to activate several enzymes. Starr's term is probably better than the old expression dark reactions, but it is still misleading and inaccurate. All of the reactions involved in photosynthesis occur only when light is present.

I am delighted to see that Starr uses the phrase "Calvin-Benson cycle" (instead of Calvin cycle) to denote the carbon-fixing reactions (page 79). Andrew Benson certainly deserves recognition in this setting, just as Melvin Calvin does. The section about the fixation of carbon would be even better if it told that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is only 0.035% or so. I've found that almost no one has any idea of what the concentration is, despite carbon dioxide's great influence on climate and on living things. That plants can efficiently collect such a dilute substrate is most remarkable.

Those new illustrations on page 81 -- two satellite pictures of chlorophyll concentrations in the Atlantic Ocean -- are great, but the legend should call them false-color (not "color-enhanced") images.

Finally, I note that the new book, on page 74, uses an unfortunate analogy: "Just as some ocean waves are more exciting than others to surfers, certain wavelengths are more exciting to a plant's pigments." This is presumably meant as a humorous play on words, but by joining two completely different meanings of the word "exciting," and by equating "waves" with "wavelengths," Starr risks confusing the unsophisticated student.

I am not sure that this second edition of Biology: Concepts and Applications is better, all in all, than the first edition, but it is much better than the conventional texts that are used in most high schools. I again recommend Biology: Concepts and Applications to all teachers of high-school biology.

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.


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