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
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
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
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")
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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