from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1990
Reviewing a high-school book in biology
1990. 840 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-711557-1.
Prentice Hall School Division, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632.
(These spellings are correct: There is a hyphen in the title of the
book but not in the name of the company. Prentice Hall is a partof
Simon & Schuster, which is a part of Paramount Communications, Inc.)
An Obsolete Collection
of Myths and Mistakes
Terrence M. Gosliner
Prentice-Hall Biology takes a bland, traditional approach to
describing life on this planet. Although our knowledge of the
living world has expanded greatly during the 25 years since I was
in high school, Prentice-Hall Biology is not much different
from the book that I used then.
The book's 48 chapters are grouped into nine units. The first unit,
"Introduction to Biology," sets the tone for all the rest:
Page 17 lists "Branches of Biology": botany, zoology, anatomy and
physiology. Then it tells that some of them "are further divided
into more specialized areas of study," including cytology,
embryology, marine biology, paleontology and exobiology. I
do not know why exobiology, the search for extraterrestrial life, is
worth listing while evolutionary biology, ecology, ethology and
molecular biology are not.
The writers then turn to retelling classic myths. They describe
scientific inquiry in terms of a six-phase process in which "the
scientist" forms a hypothesis and then conducts an experiment. This
is their whole idea of science. But in the same chapter, their list
of "Important Biologists" includes Charles Darwin, whose grandest
work was based on the observation of nature as he found it, without
Out of Touch
The writers are not familiar with modern taxonomy. This starts to
become evident on page 45, where they begin a section called
"Modern Taxonomy. They make a brief reference to biochemical data
and to genomic-sequence data, but they say nothing of the major
advances in phylogenetic systematics. The classifying of organisms
on the basis of phylogeny, taking account of common ancestry and the
acquisition of derived features, represents the most significant
change in systematics since the time of Linnaeus (1707-1778). A
biology book should tell of it.
In noting the advent of biochemical studies in taxonomy, the
writers offer another myth. A caption on page 45 says: "The
horseshoe crab was originally thought to be a true crab. However,
biochemical studies of the horseshoe crab's blood revealed that the
organism was more closely related to spiders." In fact, the
relationship of horseshoe crabs to spiders was established, by
morphological studies, at least 100 years ago. The writers give the
impression that biochemical work and genomic-sequence studies have
revolutionized taxonomy, but that too is a myth. Such studies are
furnishing much new information for resolving phylogenetic
questions, but they also present some of the same problems that
affect traditional methods.
Convenience, Not Science
After the introductory unit, a major portion of the book is devoted
to a survey of the living world and its diversity. It is reassuring
to see that high-school students still may learn about whole
organisms in an era when college curricula put more and more
emphasis on molecules, and when college students learn less and
less about organisms as such.
It is not reassuring, however, to see the obsolete, mistaken
way in which Prentice Hall's writers conduct their survey.
Organisms are grouped into chapters according to convenience rather
than phylogenetic relationships. Thus we find a unit that lumps all
the invertebrates together, even though the invertebrates are well
known to be a paraphyletic group -- a group that includes certain
ancestral organisms but excludes some of their descendants (in this
case, the vertebrates). Today's taxonomy rejects paraphyletic
groups and seeks instead to define assemblages in which each
ancestral type is grouped with all forms that have evolved
from it. Hence today's taxonomy does not see the invertebrates as a
Even when Prentice Hall's writers appear to have an inkling about a
phylogenetic relationship, they usually ignore it On page 433, for
example, they mention that larval annelids resemble larval
mollusks. Despite this, they discuss annelids in chapter 26,
lumping them with various other "worms," and they put mollusks in
chapter 27, lumping them with echinoderms. This can easily produce,
in the minds of students, false impressions about relationships.
Taxonomy based on evolutionary relationships may have eluded the
writers because their own ideas about evolution are inaccurate.
Page 209, in a passage about evolution by natural selection, says
that poorly adapted organisms die before they can reproduce. While
this may occur in some extreme situations, differences in Darwinian
fitness are most commonly expressed as differential reproductive
success -- not as the all-or-nothing result that the writers
imagine. The picture on page 209 shows a short-necked giraffe dying
while its longer-necked relatives feed contentedly on succulent
leaves. That is a stretch, both literally and figuratively.
The writers also preserve traditional biases and a traditional,
grossly misleading way of looking at nature: Things that have fur or
feathers are deemed worthy of the most attention, while most of the
world's organisms -- the microbes, the fungi, the plants, the
ectothermic animals -- get much less notice.
One of the book's more laudable aspects is its array of "Career"
features -- half-page vignettes which try to describe jobs that are
related, in some way, to biology. But the vignettes that deal with
scientific work lack any hint of the excitement and the sense of
discovery that have drawn most biologists into their chosen fields.
The "Career" item on page 48, for example, says this about the work
of museum technicians: "Technicians clean and preserve animal and
plant specimens and carefully mount and arrange them in glass
cases." Contrast that with the things that museum technicians
really do, such as participating in field research,
discovering new species, and developing computer systems that
process and store information about specimens.
Page 20 has a "Career" feature about biology teachers. It depicts
them as people who make lesson plans, who implement curricula
dictated by school-district headquarters, and who have conferences
with parents. Advertising like that may help to explain the
shortage of inspired, inspiring teachers.
On page 140, in a sketch of the career of a "science editor," we
read that the production of a textbook may require three years. In
the case of Prentice-Hall Biology, this amount of time was
Most students are unlikely to study biology after they leave high
school, so it is important for their high-school textbooks to give
them some grounding in biological issues that can directly affect
their lives. Prentice-Hall Biology fails to do this.
On page 243 the writers briefly mention AIDS. They say that
something called AIDS "has reached epidemic proportions" and that
there will probably be 365,000 cases in the United States by 1992.
But they never tell what AIDS is, never tell that it is
fatal, and never say anything about transmission or prevention.
They just fill half a page with evasive chatter about T cells and
macrophages. Their prudish approach may help to sell books in
backward school districts, but it may also cost some students their
lives. Even Ronald Reagan's conservative surgeon general, C.
Everett Koop, knew that sound education had to take precedence over
The growth of the human population is mentioned on page 750. The
writers tell us that human numbers may be approaching Earth's
carrying capacity, and then they casually suggest that this
situation can be managed by new "technologies," medical practices,
sources of food, and kinds of housing. For how much longer will
schoolbooks try to perpetuate that myth? Nowhere does
Prentice Hall's book tell of the need to practice birth control and
to curtail population growth.
On page 756 the writers try to suggest the importance of preserving
tropical rain forests. They get the facts wrong, however, and they
recycle another myth: the Tale of the Madagascar Rosy Periwinkle.
Alkaloids taken from the rosy periwinkle have indeed been used for
making drugs that have been successful in treating certain
leukemias, but the plant grows in Madagascar's arid and semi-arid
areas, not in its rain forests. There are important reasons for
trying to preserve rain forests (and all other kinds of habitat),
but such efforts are undermined, and lose all their credibility', if
scientific facts are replaced by erroneous folklore.
To its credit, the book tries to portray ethnic and cultural
diversity' in its pictures of biologists at work. I do not know,
however, why it portrays Cro-Magnon man (on page 229) as a
clean-shaven, northern European male who looks like Thomas Jefferson
or Neil Young.
As a scientist, I find this book's many errors and distortions to be
highly objectionable. As a parent of two children who will attend
high school during the book's commercial lifetime, I find the
omissions and the lack of information to be even more alarming.
Certainly the writers of biology textbooks can be expected to do
Some Creative Claims
About an Absurd Book
William J. Bennetta
Do you read publishers' catalogues?
Prentice Hall's new catalogue states that the 1990 version of
Prentice-Hall Biology "is organized around the classification
of life forms." It fails to tell, however, that the book
"classifies" organisms in an archaic and sometimes capricious way,
giving little attention to the classification techniques used by
The catalogue also says that the book offers a "comprehensive
coverage of biology concepts" that is "organized around a
phylogenetic approach." But when the book itself is examined, that
Phylogeny -- the evolutionary origins and histories of groups of
organisms, and the evolutionary relations among groups -- is not
used an organizing theme at all. It is conspicuous chiefly by its
absence, because Prentice Hall's writers routinely ignore chances to
give crucial phylogenetic information. Sister-group relations? The
writers seem unaware of them. Unity of the eukaryotes? I see
nothing about this. Deuterostomes versus protostomes? No.
Phylogeny of arthropods? No. Phylogeny of fishes? I find nothing
about this much-studied subject.
Phylogeny of the reptiles? Yes. The book's treatment of reptiles,
including the origin of birds, does acknowledge phylogeny, though it
is not "organized around a phylogenetic approach." In fact,
the writers quickly ruin their chapter about birds by saying that
those animals comprise four major groups: perching birds, water
birds, birds of prey and flightless birds. That is amateurish and
fanciful. It has no phylogenetic basis or taxonomic meaning. Are
penguins "water birds" or "flightless birds"? Are ospreys "water
birds" or "birds of prey"?
Neither phylogeny nor phylogenetic is in the book's
index or glossary.
Do you look at book covers?
The 1990 version of Prentice-Hall Biology has a front cover
bearing the words "Revised Fifth Edition," and the book's spine
displays the same label. When I saw this, I wondered: Did the book
differ substantially from the preceding version, dated in 1987?
Guided by a list of random numbers, I sampled 75 pairs of
like-numbered pages from both versions. In every case, I found that
the page in the 1990 version and the page in the 1987 version were
identical: picture for picture, word for word, comma for comma.
According to my sample, the new version had nothing new whatsoever.
Later, however, I saw trivial alterations on pages 44,45 and 243.
As far as I know, those tiny tinkerings (plus the amended copyright
page, with its new date and its new ISBN code) may constitute all
the revising that produced the "Revised Fifth Edition."
Do you believe what textbooks say?
I hope that you will not believe what Prentice-Hall Biology
says, for it is full of misconceptions, mistakes and misnomers. Two
especially significant cases show that this book was assembled by
people who had not done much serious studying of biology. One case
involves the writers' queer notion of science. The other involves
their mishandling of biological nomenclature.
Biology is usually taught in grade 10, and it is the last science
course that many students take. For them, it is the last chance to
learn what science is, how it differs from other endeavors, and how
scientists work. These are important matters -- perhaps more
important than anything else that a biology text might address.
Prentice-Hall Biology dismisses the nature and processes of
science in a vapid, cosmetic passage that starts on page 17, has but
ten paragraphs and is quite misleading. Science, it says, goes like
this: "The scientist" forms a tentative statement, or hypothesis,
about some aspect of nature -- then, "to determine whether the
hypothesis is correct, the scientist devises an experiment to test
the effect of only one factor."
Rubbish. There are whole realms of science -- e.g., astronomy,
meteorology, paleontology and oceanography -- in which the role of
experiment is minor at best, and in which most information comes
from observations in non-experimental settings. In biology, this is
true of such fields as biogeography, ecology and taxonomy.
Science is a well defined enterprise that seeks to explain nature by
enlisting only two things: evidence and reason. This is the vital
point that distinguishes science from other approaches to nature,
such as magic, folklore, folk medicine and religion. Prentice
Hall's writers apparently have not noticed this. Their
ten-paragraph fantasy does not even mention the words
evidence and reason, much less explaining what those
words mean. (They do use the expression observations, but in
a misleading way: "Observations," in Prentice-Hall Biology,
explicitly and necessarily come from experiments. This just
reinforces the notion that all science follows a simple-minded
recipe for performing manipulations in laboratories.)
In the end, perhaps the most striking feature of Prentice-Hall
Biology is that the writers do not know how to represent the
scientific names of organisms or groups of organisms. They do not
know that names of species or genera demand italic type, but names
of other taxonomic entities -- families, orders, classes, and so on
-- do not.
Because the writers are unfamiliar with this rule, their book teems
with ludicrous mistakes: Not only in their text but even in their
index, they italicize nearly every name that comes by, creating such
bastards as "the phylum Chordata" and "the class
Crustacea" and "the order Cetacea."
This anomaly is not intrinsically important: Students' perceptions
of living things will not be greatly affected by inappropriate
typography. Its significance lies in what it tells about the
writers. Their acquaintance with biology, and with the literature
of biology, must be extremely weak.
The title page attributes Prentice-Hall Biology to: Sandra
Gottfried ("Assistant Professor of Biology and Education,
University of Missouri . . ."), Gerry Madrazo, Jr.
("Instructional Supervisor of Science, K-12, Guilford County Public
Schools, Greensboro, North Carolina"), La Moine Motz
("Director of Science, Health, and Outdoor Education, Oakland
Schools, Pontiac, Michigan"), Joseph Olenchalk ("Chairman,
Science Department, Antioch Senior High School, Antioch,
California"), Dorothea Sinclair ("Biology Teacher, Bishop
Moore High School, Orlando, Florida") and Gerald Skoog
("Professor and Chairperson of Secondary Education, Texas Tech
University, Lubbock, Texas").
A fine array but an absurd book.
Terrence M. Gosliner is a zoologist, a specialist in the biology of
marine invertebrates, and a staff scientist at the California
Academy of Sciences, in San Francisco.
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.