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Count 'em, folks! Eighteen!

Editor's Introduction -- The copyright page of Addison- Wesley Biology displays a list of eighteen "content reviewers." Did all those people really fail to notice that Addison-Wesley Biology is full of fakery, flapdoodle and howling errors?
from The Textbook Letter, November-December 1994

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Addison-Wesley Biology
1994. 952 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-201-25761-0.
Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 2725 Sand Hill Road,
Menlo Park, California 94025.

It's Mostly the Same Old Stuff,
Decked with Trendy Fluff

William J. Bennetta

In 1866 the German biologist Ernst Haeckel published a book titled Generelle Morphologie der Organismen ("General Morphology of Organisms"), in which he attempted to explain how the development (or ontogeny) of an individual organism is linked to the evolutionary history (or phylogeny) of the lineage to which the organism belongs. The core of his explanation was that the individual, as it passes through successive stages in its development, repeats the major morphological changes that took place during the evolution of its ancestors: "Ontogeny," Haeckel wrote, "is the short and rapid recapitulation of phylogeny."

Haeckel's book soon became famous, and his pronouncement about recapitulation -- often reduced to the phrase "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" -- won considerable acceptance as a basic principle of biology. It also won the attention of thinkers in other fields, who tried to extend it to the analysis of anthropological, sociological, political and historical observations.

Alas, Haeckel hadn't got things right. The phenomena that he had sought to explain were more complicated and more diverse than he imagined them to be. His "law" of recapitulation, as he called it, looked less and less like a law as biologists learned more and more about genetics, and in the early years of this century it was discarded. Biologists continued to regard it as a useful insight into some specific phenomena, but they rejected it as a universal principle.

By then, however, Haeckel's dictum had been absorbed into the liturgy of high-school biology, where it was exalted as one of the pillars of biological thought -- and long after it had lost favor among biologists, it was reverently sustained by high-school teachers and by the writers of schoolbooks. The biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who was a high-school student during the early 1950s, recalls that "the New York City public schools taught me Haeckel's doctrine, that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, fifty years after it had been abandoned by science." (I quote from the first chapter of Gould's Ontogeny and Phylogeny, issued in 1977 by The Belknap Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts).) So too in my own case: When I took high-school biology, in 1953, the proposition that "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" was presented as a grand truth.

The writers of Addison-Wesley Biology evidently had a similar experience, but they don't remember it very well. They have tried to recall the catchy rhyme that summarizes Haeckel's "law," but -- whoops! -- they have got it backwards! Here, read the "Critical Thinking" exercise that they offer on page 241: "There is a saying, 'Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny.' Look up each of the words in the dictionary. Restate the saying in your own words. Explain how this saying relates to evolution."

The fact that Addison-Wesley's writers have interchanged ontogeny and phylogeny might not deserve much attention if it were just an isolated mistake. Sadly, however, it is no such thing. Many other pathetic blunders are evident in Addison-Wesley Biology, along with deeper defects that render this textbook quite unfit for use in teaching biology. Those defects include the book's conspicuous reliance on old and bogus material, its subordination of science to trendy fluff, its refusal to deal substantively with human ecology or with environmental matters, and its promotion of goofy, phony "activities" that have no place in science education.

All in all, Addison-Wesley Biology is a package of the same old stuff, though it has been heavily gimmicked with fashionable mentionings, trendy sidebars and faddish feature articles. Presumably, these things are intended to make the book seem up-to-date -- but in my view, they serve only to create clutter and distraction while making the book seem silly. In reading the feature articles and sidebars, I have found a lot of them to be asinine or irrelevant or worse. Particularly disgusting is the clever-aborigine tale that has been stuck into a chapter about the classification of plants. [See "Chief Thunderbottom, the Panderer's Friend" on page 6 of this issue.]

This isn't to say that Addison-Wesley Biology is uniformly bad or is wholly devoid of respectable content. Its text shows some occasional variations in accuracy and currency, and certain passages seem to have been fashioned by people who knew some science and who tried, here and there, to depart from old formulas. Those passages, however, are far too scarce. Much too much of the material in Addison-Wesley Biology seems to have been generated by fakers and buffoons, and the book must be rejected.

Conventional Structure

The structure of Addison-Wesley Biology is conventional, and the text is divided into nine units: "The Basis of Life," "Genetics," "Change and Diversity" (dealing with evolution and classification), "Monerans, Protists, and Fungi," "Plants," "Invertebrate Animals," "Vertebrate Animals," "Human Biology," and "Organisms and the Environment."

Unit 1, "The Basis of Life" -- which purports to introduce living systems, scientific methods, some chemistry, and some cell biology -- is full of flapdoodle. For example, the unit's first chapter opens with some trendy stuff about the extinction of species, but the writers soon show that they don't know what species are. Muddling a morphological view with an evolutionary concept, they say that a species is "a group of organisms so similar to one another that they can interbreed." Guess again. (That the writers haven't grasped the idea of species will be confirmed by other mistakes, later in the book -- e.g., the confusion of species with varieties, and the claim that doves and pigeons are "two closely related species." In truth, the words dove and pigeon carry no taxonomic import. The term dove is applied to many different species, rather arbitrarily, and pigeon is applied to many others.)

The next chapter, "Methods and Tools of Biology," serves up the usual: It concentrates on laboratory experimentation, not even hinting at how diverse the modes of scientific inquiry are. The narrative is hasty and superficial to the point of obscurity, and it sometimes is downright perverse -- as when it says that a hypothesis is just "a possible explanation for an event or a set of observations." That isn't so. (The statement "A demon made it happen by magic" is a possible explanation for an event, but it is not a hypothesis. The writers evidently don't know that a scientific hypothesis has specific properties, chief among which is this: A hypothesis can be tested by recourse to evidence.) The failure to explain the concept of a hypothesis is one aspect of the writers' overall failure to tell what biology is, what biologists do, and how biologists work.

The stuff about chemistry is execrable and, I think, will have little meaning to students who haven't already had a chemistry course. I wanted to close the book when I saw that the writers were unable to explain what organic compounds are, or what the categories "organic" and "inorganic" signify, but I kept reading -- right through page 60, where the writers have made a pretense of describing nucleic-acid structures without illustrating them!

I found one thing to like in Unit 1: On page 113, the writers properly distinguish between regeneration and asexual reproduction -- two phenomena that have been confused and even equated in some other textbooks.

In Unit 2, "Genetics," the treatment of Mendelian principles is hard to follow because it has been severely compressed and is poor in explanation and exemplification. The material about chromosomes and molecular genetics is somewhat better, and I am glad to see that it includes an illustrated account of the structure of DNA. (So why did somebody pretend to describe DNA back in Unit 1? The only answer I can give is that the book was evidently written in separate chunks, by people who had little contact with each other. It shows various cases of duplication and redundancy, including cases in which redundant passages can't be reconciled with each other.) I am also glad to see that the molecular-genetics material has a section about the chemical basis of mutagenicity. That section would be better if the text about "base analogs" were supported by illustrations.

Next, Unit 2 offers a chapter called "Applied Genetics," which strikes me as a lengthy exercise in mentioning and faking. It starts with a weird passage in which the writers try to equate selective breeding with biotechnology, saying that "Biotechnology is the application of biological science to practical problems." (That is broad enough to be meaningless, and it is surely broader than the definition that the reader saw in Unit 1, where biotechnology was "the use of organisms to produce things that people need.") Then the writers turn to inbreeding and outbreeding, and they warn that outbreeding can yield "unexpected and even dangerous results." They evidently have contrived that notion as an excuse to mention the African bees which were shipped to Brazil some 40 years ago, for a breeding experiment, and which escaped into the wild -- but the writers' account of the African-bee affair is addled. In any case, there is no particular connection between outbreeding projects and escapes, so the writers' whole construct is ridiculous.

Now the writers fumble through some stuff about genetic engineering, trying to be trendy. But they seem to understand little of what they are trying to write about, and their text is slushy. On page 196, for example, "A genetically altered bacterium helps some plants resist frost damage." How? By magic? (Amusingly, a few lines about the same topic appear on page 317, in a later unit: "Genetic engineers have even experimented with a bacterium that keeps strawberries warm. The bacterium is called ice-minus. It is sprayed onto strawberry plants to keep them from freezing at normally freezing temperatures." The notion that the ice-minus bacterium "keeps strawberries warm" indicates that Addison-Wesley's people simply don't know what the ice-minus organism is all about.

Reading further in the "Applied Genetics" chapter, I find some fakery that is particularly nauseating:

Because of the atrocities of World War II, some people fear that genetic engineering could lead to a form of eugenics. Eugenics (yoo-JEN-iks) is a practice that seeks to change human heredity by controlling mating. In one of the worst abuses of science in the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler used racial traits as the basis for controlling human mating and reproduction.

Like the phylogeny-recapitulates-ontogeny rubbish, this seems to be one of the writers' attempts to recall what they heard long ago. They plainly don't know what eugenics is, but they evidently have a hazy recollection of some stuff about eugenics and Nazis -- stuff that was commonly dispensed in high-school biology courses during the 1950s and 1960s.

If the writers had made any attempt to learn about eugenics and its history, they would know that coercive eugenics programs were operated in our own country, by state agencies, long before Hitler came to power in Germany. They would also know that the chief manifestations of eugenics in the United States today are genetic counseling, genetic screening and the prenatal diagnosis of inherited diseases -- valuable endeavors that have nothing to do with government coercion or with "the atrocities of World War II." I can't resist pointing specifically to a genetic-screening program that is operated in New York City, by Orthodox Jews -- people who presumably would be especially averse to repeating Hitler's "abuses of science."

Addison-Wesley's crummy and sensationalistic treatment of eugenics is unacceptable. Teachers who want to develop a sound lesson about eugenics can make a good start by reading Daniel J. Kevles's In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity, issued in 1985 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. (New York City).

Unit 3 of Addison-Wesley Biology deals with evolution. It starts with a conventional chapter on "The History of Life," in which the writers retail the usual old stuff about Redi -- stuff that is wrong. (As far as I am aware, no high-school book has come within a mile of telling what Redi really did.) The rest of the chapter is spotty and thin, and the diagram of "The Evolution of Multicellular Life" (pages 232 and 233) is incomprehensible. However, the diagram does note that "continents that were once joined in a single land mass split and drifted across the Earth's surface." This is significant because (as far as I can tell) it is the book's only reference to continental drift! Addison-Wesley's writers evidently don't know that continental drift has had a mighty role in shaping the living world, and they evidently haven't noticed that knowledge of continental drift is essential to our understanding of the history of life.

In the next chapter, the writers supposedly sketch the historical development of ideas about evolution. Their intent may be good, but their performance is awful. After a nod to some classical writers, they say that "The word evolution was first used by Swiss naturalist Charles Bonnet in the mid-1700s" -- but they do not tell that what Bonnet called "evolution" was not the process that bears that name today. Their anecdote is misleading rather than helpful. Next, they purport to describe Bonnet's major ideas, but their account is muddled and they conflate Bonnet with Cuvier (whom they do not mention!). Then they skip directly to Lamarck and tell the usual stories, including the one in which Lamarck's conception of evolution is "disproven" by an experiment involving mice. [See "The Imaginary Lamarck" in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1994.]

Things improve, however, when Darwin appears. The writers give a creditable account of Darwin's thinking and they avoid telling fake stories about him. The persons who wrote this material made an effort to do a decent job (even if they did make the common mistake of referring to "the H.M.S. Beagle"). Indeed, much of the text in the rest of the chapter seems knowledgeable. If it had been expanded to include adequate exemplification of concepts, and if it had been supported by some proper illustrations, it might have succeeded.

Much the same can be said about the chapter on classification. I laud the sentence which tells that biological classification is not like arranging papers in a filing cabinet, but I reject the writers' abbreviated, inadequate description of how classification is done. (Why has so little space been given to this fundamental aspect of biology? Maybe because, elsewhere in the same chapter, a full page has been squandered on a flashy feature article about efforts to find medicinal substances in marine animals, and a half-page has been devoted to a fatuous sidebar about field guides.) I also reject the phylogenetic diagram on pages 286 and 287. It is obsolete, and it contradicts the diagram that will appear on page 555.

I haven't given close attention to Unit 4 ("Monerans, Protists, and Fungi") or Unit 5 ("Plants") because the organisms they consider are not among the organisms that I know best. I must, however, call attention to the feature article (in Unit 4) titled "Genetic Engineering: Altered Life Forms." Here again, the writers resort to sensationalism: "One scientist, who opposes the release of genetically altered organisms into the environment, called genetic engineering a 'rape of nature.' Another scientist, who favors the release of the organisms, labeled opponents as 'kooks' and 'incompetents.' " Fake, unattributed "quotations" like those are the stuff of supermarket tabloids -- they have no place at all in a schoolbook. Reasoned arguments for and against the practical use of organisms modified by genetic engineering have been advanced by real scientists, and students should learn about these. Students should not be afflicted with sleazy claptrap disguised as "debate." (For a good journalistic treatment of a controversy involving genetically altered plants, biology teachers may consult a videotape or a transcript of The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour for 23 September 1994.)

Unit 6, "Invertebrate Animals," is a mixed bag. To their credit, the writers try to maintain an evolutionary perspective, but they partially vitiate that effort by recycling material that is old, narrow and excessively typological. As a result, they minimize or hide the remarkable diversity that exists in some major groups (such as the mollusks), and they lose opportunities to examine some fascinating evolutionary histories, find correlations, and call attention to convergences. I like the section about the coevolution of parasites and hosts, but I am sorry that there is no section that presents an evolutionary view of hermaphroditism. The writers dismiss that phenomenon in one short paragraph on page 470, where they refer only to simultaneous hermaphroditism, fail to suggest how widespread hermaphroditism is, and say nothing about the evolution of modes of reproduction. (In simultaneous hermaphroditism, an individual is both a functional male and a functional female at the same time. But some animals show sequential hermaphroditism, in which an individual first functions only as a male, then functions only as a female (or vice versa).)

On the other hand, the unit does have a trendy feature article about the "controversial issue" of performing experiments on rats and mice -- animals that evidently have become honorary invertebrates.

Unit 7, "Vertebrate Animals," is conventional in its approach and plan. Following an obsolete taxonomic scheme, the writers give one chapter to "fishes," one to amphibians, one to reptiles, one to birds, and one to mammals.

Mammalian chauvinism is not as virulent in Addison-Wesley Biology as it is in some other texts, but it surely is present, obvious, and distortive. For example, "fishes" are hastily typologized and homogenized, while the endotherms are examined more closely and are uniquely credited with features such as monogamy and courtship behavior -- features that, in fact, occur in ectotherms too. Even so, the unit has its good points. The writers keep evolution in mind, and they make some minimal efforts to depict diversity in the ectotherms -- for example, they briefly acknowledge internal fertilization and parental care in "fishes," parental care in amphibians, and both ovoviviparity and parental care in reptiles.

In the end, though, they really do not achieve much. They do not seem to have a real understanding of the subject matter, their depiction of the vertebrates is still myopic, disjointed and arbitrary, they still seem to think that the history of vertebrates must be a story of continual improvement, and they still say things like this: "Although some animals such as birds and alligators care for their young, mammals provide more care and protection for their young than most animals." What absurdity!

How about hermaphroditism? The writers say exactly nothing about vertebrate hermaphroditism, so they leave students with the false impression that hermaphroditism occurs only among invertebrates (and we see again how careless writers can mislead students by randomly mentioning some things and randomly omitting others).

Unit 8 bears the title "Human Biology," which presumably is intended as a joke. The unit's content, far from being an examination of human biology, is just the usual congeries of stuff about anatomy and physiology. The section on reproduction is antiquated, wrong and repugnant: It says nothing about sexual behavior, it does not acknowledge that humans can consciously manage their breeding, and it gives no hint that reproduction in our own species can be any different from reproduction in, say, lemmings. We may label this as buffoonery or hypocrisy, but we cannot call it biology.

Unit 9, "Organisms and the Environment," is supposed to deal with ecology. As a whole, it is another mass of old material, organized into another display of mentioning. The only portion of this unit that merits notice is its last chapter, which is also the last chapter in the book. Titled "People and the Environment," it is vacant and worthless. The writers deliver a load of pieties and platitudes (about everything from DDT and deforestation to solar energy and biological diversity) while they avoid the basic ideas that figure in scientific thinking about human ecology. Hence, for example, there isn't a word about the tragedy of the commons -- the great explanatory principle that enables us to understand and interpret such diverse spectacles as the destruction of oceanic fisheries, the eradication of African forests, and the relentless flow of illegal immigrants into the United States from Mexico. (See Garrett Hardin's article "The Tragedy of the Commons" in Science, 13 December 1968.)

Far worse, the writers refuse to discuss overpopulation in any substantive way. They mention it several times (spewing more platitudes) but they give no case histories, they ignore the political dimensions of the population crisis, and they make no effort to explain the catastrophic folly that is inherent in the rustic notion that people have a "right" to breed at will. (Again, see Garrett Hardin's article.) In a like way, Addison-Wesley's writers say that overpopulation "could" produce deleterious or disastrous social effects in the indefinite future, but they do not tell that it already has done so (and is doing so right now). They say that "People are currently conducting a global experiment in overpopulation," but they do not describe any population-control programs or methods. In Addison-Wesley Biology, all that we can do as we watch the horrific expansion of human numbers is to wring our hands, spout some rhetorical questions, and "accommodate the growing human population" by applying "the principles of conservation." Addison-Wesley's book thus ends as it began: by peddling flapdoodle. The suggestion that an indefinitely expanding population can be accommodated through "conservation" is flapdoodle of a particularly invidious kind.

I've already said a lot here, but I cannot end this analysis of Addison-Wesley Biology without telling a little about its complement of 48 "activities." These items seem to be consistently worthless, and they evidently have been contrived by writers who know nothing about science and who lack even a rudimentary sense of logic. In various cases, the writers pretentiously give a "hypothesis" that allegedly is to be investigated, but they then prescribe a procedure that doesn't match the hypothesis or that begs the question. In the activity on page 569, for instance, the "hypothesis" is that "Fish scale bands can be used to estimate the age of a fish" -- but that same idea, in different words, is invoked and used as established fact in the subsequent procedure. The whole thing rests on circular thinking, and the procedure doesn't test the hypothesis at all. For some examples of other activities that involve the same or similar fallacies, see pages 357, 525, 601 and 637.

Just as bad are the many activities in which the "hypothesis" paragraph says: "Read through this activity carefully. Construct your own hypothesis for the experiment, and write it down." I do not know what that is supposed to achieve (other than to give the students a very weird vision of science), but I do know this: When I tried to construct valid hypotheses for some of the activities in question, I was unable to do so.

The activities in Addison-Wesley Biology seem goofy at best, and often pernicious. No student should be subjected to them.

I close by citing the eighteen "content reviewers" who are listed on the book's copyright page. I regard them as a distinguished crew indeed, and I shall remember them fondly whenever I hear the saying that "Phylogeny recapitulates ontogeny." Here they are: Dr. David Armstrong, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado. Alan Asher, South Shore High School, Brooklyn, New York. Dr. William Barstow, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. Dr. Virginia Clay, Northwestern High School, Detroit, Michigan. James Cole, Jr., Clements High School, Chicago, Illinois. Priscilla Costello, Terre Haute South Vigo High School, Terre Haute, Indiana. Dr. Paul Ecklund, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Andrea Ellis, Riverside High School, Greer, South Carolina. Dr. James Gavan, University of Missouri, Columbia, Missouri. Dr. Judith Goodenough, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts. Dr. Zac Hanscom, III, San Diego State University, San Diego, California. Susan Holt, Williamsville East High School, East Amherst, New York. Theresa Knapp, Adlai Stevenson High School, Lincolnshire, Illinois. Julio Landa, Westhill High School, Stamford, Connecticut. Bob Lawrence, Tennyson High School, Hayward, California. Ronald Lee, Western High School, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Rebecca Scott, North High School, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Dr. Herbert Stewart, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida.


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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