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Leave it to Bambi
Editor's Introduction -- Kendall/Hunt's eccentric book Middle School Life Science, issued in 1991, is built around anthropocentricity and anthropomorphism. Those pretensions do not have any scientific basis, and they do not have any place in a science classroom. Neither does Middle School Life Science.
from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1992

Reviewing a middle-school book in life science

Middle School Life Science
1991. 645 pages. ISBN: 0-8403-5098-8.
Copyrighted by Jefferson County Public Schools, Golden,
Colorado. Published by Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company,
2460 Kerper Boulevard, Dubuque, Iowa 52004.

A Manual for Pre-Meds,
Spiked with Some Weird "Ecology"

William J. Bennetta

Kendall/Hunt's Middle School Life Science is so eccentric that I've had difficulty in deciding how to start this review. The best way, I think, is to introduce two terms:

Anthropocentricity is the view that man is the most important thing in the universe and that all of nature revolves around human life and human desires. For the anthropocentrist, man is the paragon among all organisms and the only one that merits serious attention. A few other organisms may have some petty significance because they resemble man in one way or another, or because man finds them useful or troublesome or entertaining. The rest of the living world just doesn't matter much.

Anthropomorphism is the practice of ascribing human properties, faculties and emotions to non-human organisms. It is useful and often charming in the realm of fantasy, where it gives rise to plants and animals that talk, hold human values, behave according to human rules, or live in communities resembling human societies. (Please recall Bambi.) But unfortunately, anthropomorphism is not confined to works of fiction. Uninformed writers sometimes inject it into supposedly serious books about nature and science.

Neither anthropocentricity nor anthropomorphism has any scientific basis, and neither has any place in a science classroom.

Now let me look at Middle School Life Science.

The expression life science is well established among educators, who use it to denote a sort of introductory biology, usually taught in a middle-school grade. Traditional life-science courses have sought to familiarize students with a scientific view of the living world, giving attention to the diversity of life on Earth, to the characteristics of various groups of organisms, and to basic concepts that help us understand how organisms survive, reproduce, interact and evolve. Traditional life-science textbooks have at least pretended to consider that same body of subject matter, even if they often have made a bad job of it.

In Middle School Life Science we see a deep departure from the conventional approach. Though the book retains some traditional features, it shows much that is new. I can summarize its novelty by quoting a comment made by a friend of mine, a professor of biology: "This Kendall/Hunt thing isn't a life-science book. It has some stuff about wildlife and conservation, but it's really an anatomy manual for 13-year-old pre-med students."

He is right, and his remark points to some of the book's fundamental features:

  • The text has two major parts. The first, some 140 pages long, consists of a single unit that nominally deals with ecology. The second has some 480 pages and comprises six units about human anatomy and physiology. There is no connection between the two parts, and no evident reason why the two should reside within the same pair of covers.

  • Though most life-science books issued in recent years have been warped by anthropocentricity, Middle School Life Science carries that pernicious stuff to an extreme that seems unique. One manifestation of this is the book's gross structure -- as I've told, more than 75% of the pages are devoted to human anatomy and physiology. Another manifestation is the writers' failure to provide any scientific overview of the living world, its components and its diversity. A third, perhaps the worst, is the writers' view that non-human organisms are just oddities: trivial things that deserve notice only if they yield entertaining factoids to leaven the study of humans. For these writers, a hummingbird is just something that eats a lot of food every day -- and therefore can furnish an amusing note for a chapter about human nutrition. An elephant is something that has a lot of muscles in its trunk -- and so can furnish a gee-whiz item for a chapter about the human muscular system. The writers seem unable to imagine that a hummingbird or an elephant may be interesting or important in its own right, regardless of how it may resemble (or differ from) a human.

  • As my friend said, Middle School Life Science is a manual. One might consult it to find a diagram of, say, a human stomach or the bones in a human shoulder, but one would not be tempted to do any real reading. The book is much too choppy and incoherent for that. Fragments of text are dispersed in a jumble of exercises, sidebars, gee-whizzers and an unusually large array of hands-on activities. This jumble dominates the book, overwhelming the narrative text and making the text hard to find and hard to follow. In some puzzling instances, a chapter actually begins with an activity. There is no narrative introduction at all. Indeed, Middle School Life Science looks a lot like a teacher's handbook -- a package of suggestions for exercises and activities -- rather than a textbook for students. I doubt that students, on their own, can learn much from it. Their doing so seems all the more unlikely because the book's index is faulty and unreliable, and there is no glossary at all.

While the material in Kendall/Hunt's book is conspicuously hands-on, it is also -- conspicuously -- brains-off. The writers evidently are not interested in ideas or in familiarizing the student with the major themes and concepts that animate and illuminate the modern study of life. In a way, this is not surprising. Anthropocentricity does not leave much room for interest in, say, the history of living things, the workings of organic evolution, or the current diversity and condition of life on Earth. Nor does it favor any interest in the precepts of scientific thinking and scientific inquiry -- after all, anthropocentricity itself is unscientific and even antiscientific. In any case, we'd not expect to find much about the aforementioned subjects in a human-anatomy manual. But Kendall/Hunt is selling this manual as a life-science book.

The omission of organic evolution is stark and especially repellent. Evolution is the great principle that unifies the study of the living world and enables us to make sense of it. The writers' failure to acknowledge that principle is, by itself, sufficient reason to exclude Kendall/Hunt's book from life-science classrooms. It surely is reason to exclude the book from life-science classrooms in California, for it puts the book squarely at odds with California's current framework for science education. That framework requires that curricula reflect the centrality of evolution in the biological sciences.

In the rest of this review, I'll focus on the book's first unit, "Ecosystems and Ecology." I see little point in analyzing the pre-med units, and the ecology unit is full of nonsense that demands comment.

As a whole, the unit is confused, uninformed, anachronistic and obscure -- deeply obscure because the writers fail to tell what ecology is, even though the word ecology is in the unit's title. They make things worse by using ecology (or ecological) in its slang sense and by coining silly expressions such as "Eco-Awareness," "Eco-Decisions" and "ecological gift ideas." That is unforgivable. Students exposed to this book will not learn that ecology is a branch of biology, and they probably will guess that it is a matter of recycling cans and refusing to pick wildflowers.

Sometimes the writers pick a good topic, then bungle it or entirely misconstrue it. In one bizarre instance, they miss both the ecological significance and the pedagogic potential of the history of the house sparrow in North America. Instead of telling the story in ecological terms, and drawing ecological lessons from it, they feed the student some happy-talk. [See "Mr. Sparrow, Our Perky Pal" in the box on this page.]

Page 75 begins a twenty-page section about predators, including fifteen pages (!) about the control of coyotes in sheep-ranching areas. Some of the coyote stuff has merit, but the section itself is uninformed and unacceptable. The writers' view of predation comes not from science but from 19th-century religion, and their general "explanation" of predator-prey relations is steeped in mysticism and anthropomorphism. [See "Old Paley Strikes Again" on page 11 of this issue.]

Worst of all, I think, is the jumble of factoids, misconceptions and odd statements that are related to agriculture. This is puzzling stuff. The writers seem impelled to say something about agriculture, but they ignore obvious opportunities to put agriculture, legitimately, into a context of "Ecosystems and Ecology." For example: In a section on native plants of North America (pages 24 through 27), they note that native plants sometimes are displaced by introduced ones, and that some introduced plants can succeed only if they are tended and protected by humans. But the writers fail to point out that the large-scale introduction and tending of foreign species -- agriculture, in other words -- has done more than anything else, in historic times, to reshape the world's terrestrial ecosystems.

Though they clearly don't care about viewing agriculture in ecological terms, they drag it into their text anyway, in a section called "Plants as Producers" (pages 42 through 46). Their performance is an outrage.

The section pivots around a jumbling of the scientific and the vernacular meanings of the words produce and producers. Back on page 14 "producers" were defined as organisms that generate their own "food" by photosynthesis. But now a different definition takes over, and the student gets no warning or explanation. After mentioning that humans use some plants both as food and as industrial materials, the writers say: "[I]t is obvious that plants are the producers of the world. They provide us with food, medicines, and drugs; with energy for heat; . . . ." So "producers" has shed its scientific meaning and has donned a vernacular one, denoting sources of commercially valuable goods. The resulting confusion (reinforced by an absurd passage on page 55) surely can't help students to grasp what "producers" means in an ecological context.

Mere confusion, however, is not the main issue here. The main issue, I believe, is racism. Why did the writers contrive their "Plants as Producers" stuff, and make their antic excursion into agriculture, to begin with? The only answer that seems credible is the obvious one -- the one that will occur instantly to anyone who has the book in hand. The writers evidently wanted an excuse to peddle some material about peanuts and George Washington Carver! And there he is! -- in two paragraphs of text on page 42, a picture on the same page, then an activity and another picture on page 46. Even if the writers' material about Carver were sound, the entire exercise would be absurd because Carver's contribution to studies of "Ecosystems and Ecology" was roughly nil. He has been forced into an alien setting, and his being there looks all the weirder because the unit does not mention any other scientist, living or dead. I must infer that Carver has been abused in this way only because he was black and because the writers of Middle School Life Science wanted to do some racial pandering. How disgusting!

Am I wrong? If so, let the writers explain why their unit tells nothing of Darwin, von Humboldt, Warming, Forel, Lotka, Elton, Tansley or Hutchinson -- or anyone else who really did contribute to our knowledge of ecosystems and ecology.

Besides misleading students, the Carver stunt underscores a general feature of the book: Middle School Life Science is virtually devoid of historical perspective. I've never seen a middle-school science text that more effectively hid the idea that science is a human endeavor, with a history, and that scientific knowledge has not fallen from the sky but has been developed by real, identifiable people. As far as I can tell, the writers cite only one scientist other than Carver. In one of the pre-med units, "[Human] Foods and Digestion," there are five pages (!) about William Beaumont's investigations of the stomach of Alexis St. Martin.

Educators should shun this eccentric and tawdry book.


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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