from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1994
Reviewing a high-school book in biology
Biology: Visualizing Life
1994. 850 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-03-053817-3.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
1120 South Capital of Texas Highway, Austin, Texas 78746.
(This company is a division of Harcourt Brace & Company,
which is a part of General Cinema Corporation.)
This Biology Book
Is One of the Best
Biology: Visualizing Life is one of the best high-school
biology books that I have seen, and it is surely the best sold by
Holt [see note 1, below].
It has clearly benefited from work done
by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), but it does not
give an impression of much direct "borrowing" from earlier texts.
It thus represents a big advance beyond the typical high-school
biology book, which is merely the 111th revision of something that
was originally published in 1883.
That said, Biology: Visualizing Life still has room for
In reviewing a biology book, there are two related issues that must
First, does the book offer an accurate portrayal of biology, as
seen by a significant fraction of today's biologists? For
Visualizing Life, the answer is yes.
Second, does the book achieve the aims that it sets for itself?
Some of the aims of Visualizing Life are put forth in a
preface signed by George B. Johnson, the Washington University
professor who is the first of two authors listed on the book's title
page. In his preface, Johnson tells us that "The heart of biology
is a set of simple ideas that explain why things work the way they
do and how they got that way." I am not sure that the ideas are
simple, but the focus on understanding ideas is a right one. I
would be pleased if any of my graduate students knew and understood
all of the ideas that Visualizing Life conveys.
Johnson further distinguishes "ideas" from "information," and he
states an intention to focus on "ideas." But ideas really have a
high information content, and the information is highly organized.
I assume that what Johnson actually means is that he wants to de-
emphasize the accumulation of isolated facts and statistics. Good.
Visualizing Life has at least one illustration on every page,
and the illustrations, in general, are of high quality and are
pertinent to the topics discussed in the text. The book has less
text than Holt's Modern Biology does, although the number of
pages is about the same in both. A typical page in Modern
Biology has some 2,700 characters while a typical page in
Visualizing Life has fewer than 2,400. The pages in
Visualizing Life are larger, and the margins narrower,
providing more room for pictures.
The readability is high, and most of the writing depends on short
declarative sentences. Yet the conceptual content is also high, as
when the text describes the coevolution of symbiotic pairs of
species (pages 270 and 271). Visualizing Life should work
well for advanced students and, if the book is used with care, for
students whose abilities are average or even lower. However, some
students may find it hard to see the scientific forest through the
Visualizing Life contains 34 chapters, grouped into six
units. Unit 1 is really an introduction to biochemistry and cell
biology, under the title "Study of Life." Unit 2, "Continuity of
Life," covers genetics, evolution and life's origin. Unit 3 has
three chapters on "The Environment." Unit 4, "Diversity of Life,"
is a fairly traditional survey of life forms. Unit 5 is devoted to
the "Animal Kingdom." Finally, Unit 6 has eight chapters, arranged
mainly by organ systems, dealing with "Human Life." This sequence
is typical of good college-level biology text.
Within each unit, every chapter ends with a "Highlights" page, a
"Review" spread, and then an "Investigation" activity. The
"Review" spreads -- especially their lists of multiple-choice
questions -- don't seem to reflect the goal of focusing on ideas,
for ideas rarely come in multiple-choice versions. The greatest
potential for improving this book lies in improving the "Review"
questions. The "Investigation" activities are of variable quality:
Some seem very good, but others are too complex for average
students, even in college. Dissecting a chicken wing (page 636) is
good. Measuring diffusion by looking for the action of amylase on
starch (page 86) is too complex.
Visualizing Life contains feature articles of several kinds:
"Discoveries in Science," "Science, Technology and Society,"
"Journeys" and "Science in Action." A "Journeys" feature usually
consists of a large painting of an organism, with notes about the
organism's anatomy and natural history. The eighteen "Science in
Action" items fall into two categories: Nine of them consider
scientific topics, such as cystic fibrosis or sexual selection,
while the others are inspirational profiles of persons whose
occupations are somehow related to biology.
The Right Direction
The idea of "visualizing life" is an appealing one and goes in
exactly the right direction, in my opinion. I have given talks
about the role of visualization in the life sciences, and in those
talks I have shown that my own field, biochemistry, is a highly
visual science. By creative reconstruction, we can see the shapes
of protein molecules. Using the latest techniques in
crystallography, we can see enzymes in action. And with modern
computers we can produce a video that illustrates an enzyme acting
on its substrate.
Holt has found some very good illustrations for Visualizing
Life, particularly the depictions of cell membranes. The art of
biomedical illustration has been honed to a very sharp edge. When
publishers take advantage of available skills, they can get
Unfortunately, however, Holt's editors and illustrators have
sometimes fallen down. On page 36, for example, a helix is shown as
a sinusoidal ribbon. That suggests that someone did a poor job of
copying a rather poor drawing that appears in the BSCS text
Biological Science: A Molecular Approach.
Another example: On page 661, in chapter 28, the illustration of the
human eye is weak, conveying the notion that light rays converge in
front of the eye and diverge inside it. The illustration is
completely unlabeled, and the adjacent text says only that light "is
focused by the lens" and that the lens "changes shape." In the same
chapter, the "Investigation" invites the student to fuse a picture
of a tiger with a picture of a cage by using binocular vision, but
the pictures are misaligned -- when the two images are fused, the
tiger's feet are lower than the cage's wheels. That's just dumb.
The lesson here, as usual, is that text and illustrations must
support one another. They cannot be independent events that simply
happen to occur on the same page. If we are to visualize life, we
need to see it as it really is.
Besides trying to focus on ideas, Visualizing Life has
another declared aim. It seeks to present biology in a way that
revolves around six themes: energy and life; scale and structure;
stability; evolution; patterns of change; interacting systems.
These phrases, listed on pages 16 through 18, are obviously
clichés, heavily loaded with multiple implicit meanings. They do
not really say much by themselves, unless one knows about the debate
that generated them: They emerged from the State of California's
recent effort to define a science curriculum [note 2].
Are the themes really reflected in the body of the book? The theme
of evolution certainly is. Evolution by natural selection is
very well integrated into many chapters, and an evolutionary thread
runs through the whole text. This is a key feature and probably the
book's strongest aspect, because it reflects where biology is today.
At last, Holt's writers have done away with the Lamarckian straw
man. Similarly, there is no nonsense suggesting that creationism
may be science rather than religion.
The phrase patterns of change, as it is used in this book,
means cellular differentiation: Our fate lies not in our stars but
in our cells. (True, but how could it lie anywhere else?) The
theme energy and life figures in all the chapters about
cells, as well as in the units about ecosystems and about the human
body, but we would expect this in any book -- there is no other way.
The idea of interacting systems is evident in the book's
treatment of ecosystem dynamics, stability turns up
(appropriately) in the discussion of homeostasis, and the scale
and structure theme is illustrated at many levels, from the
structure of a carbon atom to the challenge posed by the population
So it seems that the text really does incorporate the announced
themes, in one way or another. If Holt can get a competent person
to review the text and the illustrations together, and another
competent person to improve the test questions on the "Review"
spreads, the next version of this good book can be even better.
Right for Some Students,
but Not Right for Others
William J. Bennetta
Some fourteen years ago the Gannett company introduced a national
newspaper, USA Today, that embodied a radical editorial
strategy: USA Today was a printed imitation of television --
an attempt to mimic the shows that pass for news programs on
commercial television stations. The paper's pages were fragmented
and colorful, the news reports typically were shorter than short,
and there were lots of fluffy feature articles. Here was a
newspaper for people who had little affection for reading and who
would not give much time to anything that was not flashy and
USA Today is still going strong, and the idea of making
publications look like television shows has turned up in various
other quarters. It surely has become prominent in the schoolbook
business, but with generally unimpressive results. A typical TV
textbook (e.g., Merrill's Biology: The Dynamics of Life) is a
brainless mess -- bits of silly, old material floating in a sea of
Holt's Biology: Visualizing Life is different. It's a TV
textbook, to be sure, ruled by garish design and by a plethora of
pictures, many of them oversized, weirdly shaped or weirdly placed.
The text has been chopped and squeezed, to make it fit into the
space that remained after the pictures had been accommodated, and
this approach has plainly imposed constraints on the amount of
information that the text can convey. But within those constraints,
Visualizing Life presents biology in a way that is
innovative, generally accurate and usually up-to-date. While the
content sometimes seems shallow and too typological, the writing is
skillful, and most of the illustrations strike me as competent and
In my judgment, Visualizing Life is the best high-school
biology book available for use by students who don't intend to
pursue higher education in science or to seek scientific careers. I
would not, though, recommend this book for students who intend to
become science majors in college. Those students need more
information than Visualizing Life can give them, they need to
go beyond the typological view of nature that Visualizing
Life favors, and they need practice in reading, not in looking
One pleasing aspect of Visualizing Life is its rejection of
some pernicious traditions. For example, it does not say anything
at all about Lamarck or Redi. The Lamarck and Redi stories that
have appeared for decades in biology books (including many books
that are sold today) are bogus and stupid. I look forward to the
time when they will be universally abandoned.
Here is another bit of innovative thinking in Visualizing
Life: In the chapter titled "The Fragile Earth" the text tells
that trees are renewable, but it does not repeat the traditional,
nonsensical claim that forests are renewable. In the next
edition, the Holt writers can do even better: They can tell
explicitly that forests are not renewable, and that tree farms are
not forests. The student who understands those two points will be
able to see through the deceitful propaganda dispensed by timber
The unit about human biology in Visualizing Life, like the
corresponding units in Holt's other biology books, is really just a
weak survey of human anatomy and physiology. Even so, it has
something to praise: In Visualizing Life, the chapter on
"Reproduction and Development" acknowledges contraception and says
a little about condoms, vasectomies, diaphragms and spermicides.
Good! This book has taken a step toward describing reality. It
still has a long way to go, however, for it fails to examine
breeding in any societal context, fails to relate breeding to
matters of public health, and fails to explain how some of our
country's social and economic systems are breaking under the weight
The topic of global overpopulation appears in the chapter on
"The Fragile Earth," but it is treated in a vague, timid and
misleading way. In this case, the Holt writers [note 3] have
not escaped the influence of traditional foolishness. They
make an unexplained allusion to undescribed population-control
programs in unspecified "countries," and they mention a prediction
that the population of the world may stabilize, by the end of the
next century, at some 13 to 15 billion people. Then they glibly
No one knows whether the world can support 13 to 15 billion
people indefinitely. Finding a way to do so is the greatest task we
will face in the coming years.
That airy-fairy stuff will not do, and the "No one knows" statement
is absurd. First, the statement falsely implies that the question
of how many people the world can support is entirely beyond our
ken. Second, it ignores this crucial truth: The question of how
many people the world can sustain is inseparable from the question
of how those people will live.
If we accept the prospect that evidently delights some religious
zanies -- the prospect of a devastated planet packed with people who
live like cattle on a feedlot -- then the maximum sustainable
population may be even greater than 15 billion. But what if we
posit a world in which all people would have social, material and
environmental amenities comparable to those enjoyed by the middle
class in the United States during the 1950s? If we choose that
standard, we discover that Earth would not even be able to sustain
the number of people that it has right now.
Holt's writers are oblivious to all this, and they do not suggest
what life on Earth would be like if the population reached 15
billion. Instead, they depict the sustaining of 15 billion people
as a sort of goal, and they give us the "task" of "finding a way" to
achieve it. Bah!
Unless students get sound information about population issues, they
can hardly be expected to develop responsible attitudes toward
breeding, and they will have little hope of understanding the
ecological catastrophes, economic dislocations, mass migrations, and
resource wars that will become increasingly frequent as the 21st
century unfolds. Holt's writers can greatly improve Visualizing
Life, in its next edition, by providing the information that
I have one more suggestion for making Visualizing Life
better: The Holt staff should dump those cheesy biographies that
appear under the rubric "Science in Action." They are funny, in a
way, for they recall a well known series of advertisements used by
the distributors of Dewar's Blended Scotch Whisky. What matters
much more, however, is that the biographies are so obviously
contrived and disingenuous that they are insulting.
- Holt's other biology textbooks are Modern Biology (which
Lawrence Davis reviewed in The Textbook Letter for
July-August 1992) and Biology Today (which Davis reviewed in
The Textbook Letter for March-April 1993). [return to text]
- See the two-part article "California's New Framework Demands New
Science Texts" in The Textbook Letter for November-December
1990 and January-February 1991. [return to text]
- The title page of Visualizing Life lists two authors --
George B. Johnson and Gary J. Brusca -- but the preface is called a
"A Message From the Author" and is signed by Johnson only. I wonder
what Holt's editors were trying to gain by creating that
contradiction. In the preface, Johnson presents himself as the one
and only person who wrote the book, and he says nothing to suggest
that he ever has heard of Gary J. Brusca. [return to text]
Lawrence Davis is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at
Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas). His scientific
interests include biological nitrogen fixation and the application
of plants to the bioremediation of soils. He has taught plant
genetics and plant physiology to high-school teachers for many
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.
Holt issued another version of Biology: Visualizing Life in
1998. A review of the 1998 version appeared in The Textbook
Letter for September-October 1997.
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