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Simply nonsensical
Editor's Introduction -- This article, originally published as a sidebar to a review of Glencoe's Biology: An Everyday Experience, describes one way to recognize a phony biology book or a phony life-science book. Does the book divide animals into categories labeled "simple" and "complex"? If so, you can reject the book right away.
from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1994

Follow the Bouncing Squid

William J. Bennetta

Choosing a textbook for a biology course is always a demanding, time-consuming task, but you can make it somewhat easier if you immediately eliminate the books that are obvious, outright fakes. You usually can do this in a few minutes. That's all the time that you will need for checking a few passages in each book, looking for telltale features that routinely appear in textbooks produced by charlatans. If a book displays any of these features, you will know that the book is bogus.

One telltale item that characterizes phony "biology" books and phony "life science" books involves a daffy categorization of animals. This item is particularly easy to detect, and you sometimes can spot it by merely reading a book's table of contents. Does the book divide animals into categories called "simple" and "complex"? If so, you can reject the book right away.

All that "simple" and "complex" stuff -- which evidently was invented by some textbook-company hack, years ago, and which has been copied by other hacks again and again -- is nonsense, as I have explained several times in these pages. (See, for example, my review of Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science in TTL for November-December 1991.) I needn't repeat that explanation here, but I would like to cite some cases that suggest how ridiculous the "simple"-versus-"complex" categorization is:

  • In the 1987 version of Scott, Foresman Life Science, mollusks were simple. In the 1990 version of the same textbook, however, mollusks were complex. (The writers didn't tell how the mollusks had altered themselves so radically in only three years.)

  • In the 1989 version of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's Life Science, and in the 1990 version of Silver Burdett & Ginn Life Science, the mollusks were simple.

  • In the 1991 version of D.C. Heath's Life Science, the mollusks were complex.

  • In the 1991 version of Biology: The Dynamics of Life, which Macmillan/McGraw-Hill issued under the Merrill imprint, there was a category called "simple animals," but the only organisms in that category were the sponges and the cnidarians. The mollusks, by default, were complex.

  • In the 1992 version of Biology: An Everyday Experience -- the Merrill book that I review in the present issue of The Textbook Letter -- mollusks are explicitly simple.

  • In still another Merrill book, the 1993 version of Merrill Life Science, mollusks are explicitly complex.

The spectacle of mollusks bouncing back and forth between meaningless categories is funny, to be sure, but it also illustrates an important point: If you pay attention to such stuff, and if you know what it signifies, you may be able to save yourself a lot of time and trouble when textbook-selection time comes around. Given a book like Biology: An Everyday Experience, you'll be able to discard it almost as soon as you pick it up.


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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