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from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1996

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life
1996. 461 pages. ISBN: 0-697-15990-6 (paperback) or 0-697-15989-2 (hardback).
Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 2460 Kerper Boulevard, Dubuque, Iowa 52001.

Though This Is a Good Book,
Wadsworth's Book Is Better

Gary C. Williams

In my review of the 1992 version of An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life, I said that it provided an admirable survey of marine biology from an ecological perspective. The new version, dated in 1996, does the same thing but is more user-friendly than its predecessor was. The book's organization has been improved significantly, in my opinion, and so has its appearance. The graphic design is cleaner, and the utilization of space is more efficient. However, to say that the book has undergone a comprehensive revision would be misleading.

The 1996 version is only twelve pages longer than the 1992, but it has sixteen chapters instead of fourteen, and the chapters are now grouped into six sections: "Introductory Concepts," "Marine Primary Producers," "Diversity of Marine Animals," "Benthic Communities," "The Pelagic Realm" and "Human Intervention in the Sea." These are laudable changes because they have made the book's organization more coherent.

Within the chapters, alterations to the text have generally been restricted to the rewriting of selected passages or the addition of small parcels of new information. The 1992 book's chapter 3 -- a survey of marine animals -- was so poor that it demanded deep and extensive revision, but it hasn't received any such thing. It has become chapter 6 in the 1996 book, and it still is unacceptably superficial. The protozoans and all of the invertebrates are mentioned and dismissed in just 27 pages, where (for example) the ribbon worms get only one paragraph, the flatworms get only two, and the entire phylum Echinodermata gets less than a page. Yet the marine vertebrates -- one part of one phylum -- have 23 pages all to themselves, in the next chapter. The overview of marine animals in An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life remains the book's weak link.

The artwork has been improved in several ways. Some of the needlessly large photographs seen in the 1992 version have been reduced in size; some of the relatively crude pen-and-ink or aquatint illustrations have been replaced by more realistic water- color figures; some of the illustrations show better labeling or better captions; and some wholly new illustrations have been added. Such improvements are exemplified by figure 6.18 (which shows some marine mollusks), figure 6.29 ("A variety of marine crustaceans"), figures 7.12 and 7.13 (which show marine birds), and figure 8.10 (depicting the larvae of some benthic animals).

This is not to say, however, that all the illustrations are accurate and useful. Some old defects remain uncorrected, and some new ones have been introduced. For example, figure 6.11 (which was figure 3.12 in the 1992 book) is still mislabeled; those "sea anemones" are actually dendrophylliid hard corals. Figure 6.22, supposedly showing sipunculids, is the same obscure and incomprehensible photograph that served as figure 3.19 in the 1992 version. And in figure 7.7(b), the animal masquerading as "the sea snake" is really a moray eel.

Overall, the 1996 version of An Introduction to the Biology of Marine Life is better than the 1992, because it shows better organization and many cosmetic improvements, but it still falls short of the standard set by Marine Life and the Sea, a marine- biology text sold by the Wadsworth Publishing Company. [See TTL, September-October 1995.] In my judgment, Wadsworth's book remains the best choice for use in high-school honors courses or advanced-placement courses.


Gary C. Williams is a marine biologist and a department chairman at the California Academy of Sciences. 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.

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