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from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1999

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Biology: The Dynamics of Life
2000. 1,090 pages + appendices. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-828242-6.
Glencoe/McGraw-Hill, 8787 Orion Place, Columbus, Ohio 43240.
(Glencoe/McGraw-Hill is a division of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

This Book Is a Travesty

David L. Jameson

When Charles Darwin, in the late 1830s, was seeking an explanation for organic evolution, he gained an important insight from his reading of Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population. (Malthus had produced the Essay in 1798, eleven years before Darwin's birth.) The writers of the 2000 edition of Glencoe's text Biology: The Dynamics of Life evidently have heard a rumor about a link between Malthus and Darwin, but they haven't attempted to learn the facts of the matter. Instead, they have made some wild guesses and have put the guesses into their book:

For the next 22 years [after he sailed aboard H.M.S. Beagle on a voyage of exploration], Darwin worked to find an explanation for how species change over time. He read, studied, collected specimens, and conducted experiments.

Finally, English economist Thomas Malthus proposed an idea that Darwin modified and used in his explanation. Malthus's idea was that the human population grows faster than Earth's [sic] food supply. . . . [page 402]

The truth is vastly different from the Glencoe writers' guesswork, and the writers could easily have learned the truth by reading Darwin's Autobiography. Darwin tells us that in July 1837, less than a year after he left the Beagle, he began to collect information that might be useful in explaining how species had acquired their adaptations. Then:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and . . . it at once struck me that [in the struggle for existence] favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; . . . . [see note 1, below]

The Glencoe writers' notion that Darwin toiled for 22 years before he encountered Malthus's "idea" is nonsense, and so is their notion that Malthus came along and "proposed" a new construct that enabled Darwin to see the light. When Darwin was pondering the problem of adaptation, Malthus was no longer in any condition to propose anything. Malthus had died in 1834.

Persistent Ignorance

This 2000 version of The Dynamics of Life is the third version that I have reviewed for The Textbook Letter. The earlier versions were dated in 1995 and 1998.

The 1995 version was a flashy, shallow book loaded with obsolete "information" and with illustrations, sidebars, and other extras that signified nothing. In my review, I said that the 1995 version was a menace to science education, and I gave this overall appraisal:

. . . [Dynamics of Life] tries to include far too many topics, conveys little understanding of any of them, and reflects little appreciation of biology as an integrative science. Moreover, the book gives the student little idea of what is really going on in biology today; if a teacher were to use Dynamics of Life while trying to give an up-to-date course, the teacher would have to devote an unreasonable amount of time to the preparation of supplementary materials.

In producing Dynamics of Life, Glencoe's writers and editors have repeatedly favored gee-whiz material while ignoring opportunities to present real science. [note 2]

The 1998 version wasn't much different and wasn't any better. Here is how I described it in The Textbook Letter:

The 1998 version of The Dynamics of Life is a reincarnation of the 1995 version, with some minor, poorly done changes. Some old material has been recast in new words, some sentences have been restructured, and a few illustrations have been altered or replaced, but The Dynamics of Life is still shallow, gee-whizzy, incoherent and pervasively obsolete. It still won't be acceptable to teachers who know their subject, because it still fails to show an appreciation of contemporary biology or a comprehension of the processes of science. [note 3]

I ended my review of the 1998 book with these remarks:

The minor revisions seen in the 1998 version of The Dynamics of Life haven't come close to rectifying the 1995 versions's deficiencies, and I think that Glencoe should stop fooling around with this book. Glencoe should dump the whole thing and start over, using some writers who know something about the biology practiced by real, working scientists.

I continue to think that those are good suggestions. The 2000 edition of The Dynamics of Life shows a lot of superficial changes, but these haven't made much difference. Glencoe still is using writers who know next to nothing about biology, and The Dynamics of Life is still what it was before -- a book laden with guesswork, with "facts" that too often are fictions, with "Lab" exercises that don't test any real or significant hypotheses, with "Thinking Critically" items that call for counting or describing or guessing (but little thinking), and with gee-whiz pictures that jam the pages but have no pedagogic value. As if to emphasize that the 2000 book has lots of gee-whizzery, Glencoe has put the name and logo of the National Geographic Society on the book's cover and has included "National Geographic Society" among the "Authors" listed on the title page [note 4].

Here are some things which appear in the 2000 version and which lead me to say that Glencoe still is using writers who know next to nothing about biology:

I could go on and on, but I don't think I have to. If you require more examples, you need only open the book. Almost every page of The Dynamics of Life offers something that is as confused or wrong-headed as the items that I have cited, and this leads to an inescapable conclusion: The Dynamics of Life is a travesty, and it mustn't be inflicted on students, on teachers or on taxpayers.

Notes

  1. See The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, edited by Nora Barlow. It was issued in 1958 by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. (New York City). [return to text]

  2. Editor's note: Two reviews of the 1995 version ran in TTL for July-August 1996, under these headlines: "This Book Is a Menace" and "Turn It Off." [return to text]

  3. Editor's note: See "The Return of the Menace" in TTL for May-June 1999. [return to text]

  4. Editor's note: In the past few years Glencoe/McGraw-Hill has issued a number of schoolbooks that allegedly have some connection with the National Geographic Society, and Glencoe has even claimed that the NGS is the chief author of some of these books -- e.g., the 1997 version of Glencoe World Geography, the 1996 and 1998 versions of Geography: The World and Its People, and the 1999 version of World History: The Human Experience. We are unaware of any reason to believe these claims, and we infer that Glencoe has merely purchased permission to use the NGS's name and logo as sales-promotion devices. Readers of TTL will remember that the NGS's director of education products, David Beacom, refused to answer when he was asked whether the NGS had had anything to do with Glencoe World Geography or with Geography: The World and Its People. (See "Geographic Society Refuses to Tell Why Its Name Appears on a Trashy Text" in TTL, May-June 1998, and "Keeping an Eye on the Scams, Shams and Swindles" in TTL, January-February 1999.) [return to text]


David L. Jameson is a specialist in molecular biology and a senior research fellow of the Osher Laboratory of Molecular Systematics at the California Academy of Sciences (in San Francisco). His published works include books on evolutionary genetics and the genetics of speciation. He regularly reviews high-school biology textbooks for The Textbook Letter.

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