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A New York swindle

Editor's Introduction -- The book Concepts in Modern Biology is sold chiefly in the State of New York, for use by students who are preparing to take the biology examination administered by that state's Board of Regents. Written by charlatans who don't even know what mammals are, Concepts in Modern Biology is riddled with pseudoscientific nonsense and startlingly stupid statements -- including the declaration that "the cause of AIDS is not known"! If this book's content reflects the "biology" endorsed by the New York State Board of Regents, then the Board has been asleep for a long time. The book's acknowledgments page lists six "reviewers" -- six people who, we infer, have inspected Concepts in Modern Biology and have failed to notice that it is a swindle. All six of them are allegedly science educators, even though they haven't yet learned what "mammal" means. Here they are, as shown in the book: Leona Freeman, Biology Teacher, Union-Endicott High School, Endicott, New York; Director-at-Large/Biology, Science Teachers Association of New York State. Richard Plass, Assistant Principal, Biology, Stuyvesant High School, New York, New York. Richard Goodman, Science Teacher, Horace Greeley High School, Chappaqua, New York. Randy Barbarash, Assistant Principal, Science, Port Richmond High School, Staten Island, New York. Imelda Gallagher, Science Supervisor, Harborfields High School, Greenlawn, New York. Estella Abel, Science Administrator, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon, New York.

from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1994

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Concepts in Modern Biology
1993. 568 pages. ISBN: 835-90522-5. Globe Book Company.
(This book is now marketed by Globe Fearon Educational Publisher,
240 Frisch Court, Paramus, New Jersey 07652. Globe Fearon is a
part of Paramount Communications, which is a part of Viacom Inc.,
one of the largest entertainment companies in the United States.)

Ugh! A Bad Apple
from the Big Apple

Terrence M. Gosliner

Concepts in Modern Biology comes to us from New York City -- the Big Apple. It is a book created by people who live in or near the City, though it lists some "consultants" from as far away as Albany and Ithaca, along with one fellow from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (i.e., the Wild West).

By itself, the fact that a book has been written by and for New Yorkers doesn't preclude the book's being good. But Concepts in Modern Biology suffers from rampant errors, a naive oversimplification of concepts, and the omission of biological information that every high-school student should learn.

The publisher has made a laudable effort to keep the book's cost down, chiefly by limiting the number of pages and by restricting the use of color: All the photographs are black-and-white, and the other illustrations are printed in black or blue. However, the pages are not used wisely, the illustrations are of low quality, and the presentation is uninspiring. (Some of the illustrations appear in a banal appendix titled "Review of Laboratory Skills." I was startled to see that those skills include reading a thermometer and measuring with a ruler, things that my son learned in the third grade.)

It is easy to see that the writers lack familiarity with basic principles of biology. On page 416 we read that the fossil record indicates a "change from simple to complex forms" and a "change from marine to land forms." Whatever "simple" and "complex" may mean, that uninformed generalization perpetuates the myth that evolution represents progress toward established goals. It surely doesn't help students to understand that the evolution of various groups of organisms has entailed a loss of specific tissues, organs or entire organ systems -- a process that hardly seems to have made the organisms more "complex." Similarly, the writers' statement ignores the fact that many "land forms" have abandoned their terrestrial existence and have returned to aquatic or marine environments.

This book repeats various other myths, including the story in which Darwin visits the Galápagos Islands, looks at some finches, and conceives his theory of evolution, right then and there. That is not what happened, as I've explained before. [See Terrence M. Gosliner's review of Mosby's Biology Today, in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1993.]

That the writers are not familiar with evolutionary biology is evident in many other places as well. For example:

  • On page 26: "The body of an annelid suggests many roundworms placed end to end, but there is no real information about the relationship of the two phyla." That disregards the overwhelming anatomical evidence linking the nematodes to other taxa (such as the rotifers and the acanthocephalans) that have a pseudocoelom. Annelids are related less closely to those taxa than to the mollusks and the other animals that have a true coelom. The writers seem to recognize this on the next page, where they state that "since the larvae of mollusks and annelid worms are nearly identical, these two phyla are probably closely related." The writers had much of the correct information in hand, but they failed to turn it into a coherent story.

  • Page 27: Here the writers say that trilobites "appear to be the ancestors of many of today's arthropods." Wrong. All phylogenetic studies of arthropods indicate that the trilobites were highly derived and did not give rise to any other arthropods. (The writers are wrong again when, on page 414, they say that "the dominant form of life in the sea [in the early Paleozoic] was a primitive relative of the lobster, the trilobite, which is now extinct." While trilobites were diverse and conspicuous in the Paleozoic oceans, they were not dominant -- the brachiopods, bryozoans and crinoids were all more abundant than trilobites were. And describing a trilobite as a primitive relative of a lobster is like saying that a coelacanth is a primitive relative of a gnu.)

  • Page 33: "Because most chordates have vertebrae, the term vertebrates is loosely applied to the chordates." By whom? Not by a biologist or by anyone else who knows that the distinction between vertebrates and the other chordates is clear and important. "Loosely" saying that a sea squirt is a vertebrate is like "loosely" saying that a first-year medical student is a neurosurgeon.

  • Page 33: "Biologists believe that the first chordates were probably similar to [the] primitive chordates of today. However, there are no fossils to prove this." That statement makes me think of the initials BS -- first to describe the statement itself, and then to designate the Burgess Shale. Fossil chordates taken from the Burgess Shale are the earliest chordates that we know, and they do indeed resemble some of the cephalochordates that live today.

The writers' mistaken notion about the first chordates also betrays confusion about the processes of science. Biologists don't "believe." They make inferences from evidence. Fossils cannot "prove" things. They can only serve as evidence to support or contradict a hypothesis. Much later in the book, when the writers try to discuss science, they correctly say that science is not a system of beliefs, and that an explanation of nature is not scientific unless we have a way of learning whether it is false. But the writers apparently have failed to incorporate that information into their own thinking.

The writers' understanding of classification is dismal. On page 37, for example, they make the outrageous statement that "Some vertebrates that are classified as mammals are so primitive that they do not have all the characteristics of mammals." The writers evidently hold that false notion because they don't know the characteristics of mammals. All mammals have hair and mammary glands, and all the animals that have hair and mammary glands are classified as mammals. The writers are wrong in guessing that live birth (viviparity) is a defining characteristic of mammals, they are wrong in guessing that mammals are the only viviparous vertebrates, and they are wrong in guessing that mammals are the only vertebrates whose embryos are nourished by the female as they develop within her body.

There many other misconceptions about classification. On page 10, the writers say that "Categories of classification are known as taxons." (No, the categories are called ranks, and the things that get classified are known as taxa. That word taxa is the plural of taxon. There is no word "taxons.") The writers confuse common names with scientific ones, creating genera with imaginary monikers such as "Planaria" instead of Dugesia, and "Amphioxus" instead of Branchiostoma. A table on page 21 says that dicots have flowers whose petals and other parts occur "in fours or fives, or their multiples." (This is true of the more highly derived dicots but not of the primitive ones.) On page 29 horseshoe crabs are wrongly labeled arachnids and are wrongly said to have only eight legs. On page 31, the "bug" representing the order Hemiptera is not a bug -- it is an earwig, a member of the order Dermaptera.

Along with its shocking collection of errors, the book shows irresponsible omissions. The writers give a hokey rendition of how we must save Spaceship Earth (page 491), but their space probe misses the mark. Though they make an attempt to discuss the dangerous growth of the human population, the book simply has no information about how to remedy that problem. The section on human reproduction (pages 308 through 313) doesn't have a single word about contraception, but it gives three paragraphs to the treatment of infertility!

On page 225, the writers say that "the cause of AIDS is not known"! In this book, the human immunodeficiency virus doesn't exist, so the student can learn nothing, of course, about how the virus is transmitted or how transmission can be combatted.

Later, on page 398, genetic counseling "helps the family fully understand all their options," but there is no explanation of what any of those options may be.

Globe's writers obviously are appeasing people who oppose birth control, oppose the recognition of population problems, and oppose intelligent management of human sexuality and human reproduction. Topics that are crucial to the lives of our kids and the health of our planet are concealed or are dismissed with mere lip service.

Concepts in Modern Biology has more holes than all the Swiss cheese in the Carnegie Deli, and the writers have made more errors than the New York Mets. This book is a bad apple, rotten to the core. Shame on you, Globe Book Company!

A Dull, Superficial Textbook,
Colored by Anthropocentrism

Claudia Luke

By the beginning of my junior year in high school I knew I wanted to be a biologist. I was full of anticipation when I first held in my hands a textbook devoted wholly to biology, but I was about to be horribly disappointed. In the ensuing months I sifted through dry text, listened to a bored instructor, did multiple-choice homework assignments, and learned little about nature.

In its inability to engage and challenge students, Globe Book Company's Concepts in Modern Biology rivals the ill-conceived book from which I was force-fed during that unhappy experience.

Concepts in Modern Biology focuses on comparative anatomy and physiology (mostly in protozoa, hydra, earthworms, grasshoppers and humans), but it also includes chapters about chemistry, genetics, evolution and ecology. The text provides concise, usually accurate definitions of biological terms, and it mentions concepts taught in many college-level biology courses, but it fails to integrate these ideas effectively, fails to challenge students to think for themselves, and fails to help students develop an appreciation of nature.

Much of the text is organized around definitions. This style is not conducive to effective learning about life, which is typified by interactive, complex processes. The book mentions many concepts but devotes only a little space to each, so the material often degenerates into lists of terms and anecdotes for students to memorize. This is particularly apparent in the section about the diversity of life, where the anecdotal accounts of various species are too brief to engage interest. The brevity with which many topics are treated is accentuated by a prose style that relies on short, sometimes simplistic sentences.

Although the text is mostly accurate as far as facts are concerned, some glaring errors are present. For example, ectotherms does not mean "cold-blooded animals." Peripatus is a putative evolutionary link between the segmented worms and the arthropods (not just the crustaceans), and Peripatus is not extinct. Overgrazing does not turn grassland into "desert" or desert habitat. And the jaws of snakes are not "temporarily unhinged to swallow large prey." In its discussion of factors that can cause changes in gene pools, the text focuses on genetic mechanisms (recombination, crossing over, and mutation) while neglecting other processes, such as founder events.

A few questions for the student are scattered through the text, but most of them are irrelevant or are unsuited to the student's abilities. (On page 28, for example, the caption under a drawing says: "The centipede and millipede. Which moves faster?" That does not point to any interesting biology.) The exercises at the ends of chapters are just as bad, consisting of short-answer, multiple-choice and complete-the-statement questions. Most of them ask for regurgitation of facts given in the text, and few of them promote integrative thinking.

Anthropocentric Views

Biology is a process of discovery and of developing ideas, but this point is obscured by the book's emphasis on facts. The first discussion of scientific theory appears near the end of the book, on page 407, in a chapter on evolution. Earlier, there is a brief attempt to outline "the scientific method," but the ideas are not adequately developed.

Concepts in Modern Biology also does little to help students appreciate nature and the value of conservation. Many species are described in terms of their usefulness to humans: Horsetails "were formerly used in the home as an abrasive"; earthworms "are helpful to farmers"; grasshoppers are very destructive to crops; reptiles "are not popular animals though many are valuable to humans"; owls and hawks "are valuable because they eat rats and mice." These simplistic and anthropocentric views of animals do not promote understanding of the complex interactions among species, and they encourage the student to regard our planet as a resource to be exploited.

I do not recommend this book. While it may introduce the student to some biological concepts, the text is dry and unimaginative, the ideas are not integrated effectively, and the student's ability to think is underestimated. Biology is a fascinating field. No student should be required to experience it so joylessly.


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.

Claudia Luke, a wildlife biologist and specialist in herpetology, is one of the co-directors of the Granite Mountains Reserve (at Kelso, California), a research-and-teaching center operated by the University of California.


Editor's postscript

As late as 1998, Globe Fearon was still promoting and selling Concepts in Modern Biology. The book was shown on page 98 of Globe Fearon's 1998 catalogue, accompanied by promotional claims that included this one: "With Concepts in Modern Biology, you get an easy-to-use text that's been hailed both for its clarity and comprehensive, up-to-date content." Globe Fearon did not say who had "hailed" the book, nor did Globe Fearon explain that being "up-to-date" meant teaching students that the cause of AIDS was unknown.

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