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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1995

Reviewing a science book for high-school honors courses

Biology of Animals
1994. 764 pages + appendices. ISBN: 0-697-21990-9.
Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 2460 Kerper Boulevard,
Dubuque, Iowa 52001.

This Outstanding Textbook
Is Strongly Recommended

Terrence M. Gosliner

It is refreshing to pick up a new biology text and begin to read it without immediately wincing and cringing. The sixth edition of Biology of Animals is well written, accurate and contemporary -- a description that applies to few of the biology texts that we see these days.

Biology of Animals is an introductory college text that deals with biological information in a sophisticated and no-nonsense way. If used in a high school, it would be appropriate for an 11th-grade or 12th-grade honors course in biology, but it would be even better in a zoology course for students who intend to major in zoology when they go to college.

The most striking aspect of this book is its avoidance of most of the classic mistakes and traps that other biology texts have perpetuated for years and years. In chapter 1 of Biology of Animals, the writers explain scientific methods without leading students to believe that all scientific work takes the form of controlled experimentation (a technique that is often expounded but is rarely practiced). In chapter 4 there is an outstanding, accurate portrayal of the interaction between Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and of their independent development of the concept of evolution through natural selection. In the same chapter the writers provide a historically accurate account of how Darwin's observations during his voyage on the Beagle influenced his thinking about evolution. This account is much different from the myth in which Darwin travels to the Galapagos, sees some finches, and suddenly understands what is going on, as if a light bulb had been switched on in his head. Getting the story right shouldn't be noteworthy, but it is -- because so many books get it wrong.

The writers deserve further praise for their strong emphasis on evolution and for their explicit and unabashed rejection of "creation-science," the religious doctrine by which fundamentalists pretend to show, "scientifically," that organismsare products of instantaneous divine creation, not of evolution. One of the writers' stated goals is to enable students to understand how science differs from things that aren't science, such as art and religion. As a part of this, they explain that "creation-science" is religion and that its claims are not testable. They also give a good summary of the Arkansas "creation-science" case, in which a federal judge in struck down a state law that attempted to inject "creation-science" into public schools.

Another strength of this sixth edition is the completely revised section about systematics and classification, written by Allan Larson. This section includes an explanation of cladistics, and it thus provides a modern context for understanding much of the material in the rest of the book.

Cladistics is a method of classification favored by many of today's biologists. Its practitioners (called cladists) infer phylogenetic relationships, and identify natural groups, by focusing on evolutionary innovations that are shared by the descendants of a common ancestor; the cladistic approach is more objective than traditional classification, which depends on arbitrary assessments of the similarities and differences among organisms. Cladists also demand that each recognized group must be monophyletic -- meaning that it must include all the species descended from a given common ancestor, but no others.

While this sounds easy in principle, it is complicated in practice. It also leads to some revolutionary results, because many of the groups recognized in traditional classification are not monophyletic and (therefore) are not accepted by cladists. For example, traditional classification recognizes groups called "invertebrates" and "fishes," but a cladistic classification does not: Each of those groups comprises only some of the descendants of a common ancestor, so each fails to qualify as monophyletic; furthermore, each of those groups is defined not by shared attributes but by the absence of something. (The "invertebrates" group, for instance, is an artificial assemblage that was created by lumping all the animals that don't have a backbone.) Cladists insist that such groups, and the names attached to them, must be discarded. As a result of widespread acceptance of cladistic principles and methods, the science of classification is now undergoing its greatest upheaval since Linnaeus's time. This has important implications for all the rest of biology.

The writers of Biology of Animals have made a good effort to follow cladistic classification in their book, and to avoid groups that are not monophyletic. They have not always succeeded, however, for they still have a unit titled "Invertebrate Animals," and they still use the term "Protista." ("Protista" is the name of another traditional, artificial group that cladists have rejected.) Similarly, the writers continue to divide the gastropods into the three traditional subclasses -- the Prosobranchia, Opisthobranchia and Pulmonata -- though the first of these is not monophyletic. They also continue to divide the opisthobranchs into tectibranchs and nudibranchs, though the tectibranchs are not monophyletic and the name "tectibranchs" hasn't been used by systematic biologists for more than three decades. Despite such transgressions, however, the writers have made great strides in incorporating cladistic classification into their book.

Biology of Animals shows a knowledgeable approach to biological controversy, too. On page 397, for example, in a section that describes conflicting ideas about what a species is, the writers state:

Current disagreements concerning concepts of species should not be discouraging. Whenever a field of scientific investigation enters a phase of dynamic growth, old concepts will be reevaluated and either refined or replaced with newer, more progressive ones. The active debate occurring within systematics shows that it has acquired unprecedented activity and importance in biology.

This statement not only tells us about progress in science but also (and more importantly) notifies students that a great deal remains to be learned, and that the future holds exciting possibilities for budding biologists. The writers deserve a pat on the back for bringing this out.

There are some minor errors that can be corrected in the next edition, such as the misspelling of Linnaeus in a margin-note on page 388, the misspelling of Callyspongia on page 434, and the incorrect citing of page 280 (instead of page 230) in the index's entry for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

Such defects are few, however, and do not detract significantly from the book's outstanding accuracy and quality. Biology of Animals is light-years ahead of most books that might be used in an honors course in zoology, and I recommend it strongly.

An Enthusiastic Thumbs-Up
for a Fine, Exciting Book

Claudia Luke

The title sounds tame enough, even dry: Biology of Animals, sixth edition, written by Cleveland P. Hickman, Jr., and Larry S. Roberts, with contributions by Allan Larson. But make no mistake: This is an exciting, informative, up-to-date and beautiful textbook -- everything that a teacher could want. I recommend it not only to teachers who give high-school honors courses in zoology but also to inspired teachers who would like to offer some real zoology to students in basic biology classes. Why wait? Beginning students who use this book will gain a solid background in science as well as an exciting introduction to zoological research.

The text in Biology of Animals is clear, refreshing and unambiguous, and its skillful phrasing inspires the imagination. On page 28, for example, the authors refute the common impression that cells are static, quiescent structures: "In fact, the cell interior is in a constant state of upheaval. Most cells are continually changing shape, pulsing and heaving; their organelles twist and regroup in a cytoplasm teeming with granules, fat globules, and vesicles of various sorts." This is the writing of biologists intent on sharing the joy and excitement of their field.

The abundant artwork is equally stimulating, and it includes many imaginative, informative paintings. When was the last time you saw a painting of baleen whales used to illustrate the sexual, biparental life cycle? When was the last time you saw illustrations that invited you to spend some time in appreciating the beauty and diversity of the animal-like protists? Even the standard diagrams, such as the ones depicting kidney function or muscle physiology, have been rendered with beauty and clarity. The paintings are augmented with photographs of many kinds, from histological sections to portraits of scientists to pictures of the first editions of classic scientific books.

Emphasis on Inquiry

Textbook-writers often portray biology as an accumulation of facts; they neglect to teach students that science is, above all, a process. The authors of Biology of Animals have not made those mistakes; they avoid excessive detail while emphasizing basic concepts and the role of inquiry and experimentation in biology. They begin with a cogent discussion of scientific methods and evolutionary theory, and they continually remind the student, throughout the book, that biologists work by formulating and answering questions. "How can biochemists be certain that an enzyme-substrate (ES) complex exists?" they ask on page 46, as they introduce three kinds of evidence which point to ES bonding. On page 343 they summarize Adrian Wenner's challenge to Karl von Frisch's classic interpretations of bee dances, and they say: "If bees do not use the information from the dances, why do they dance as they do? The outcome of the controversy is yet to be written."

The emphasis on inquiry is also reflected in biographical sketches of famous researchers, and it is continued in the study questions at the end of each chapter. The questions require that students not only recall facts but also think and integrate information.

The content of Biology of Animals is up-to-date and accurate. At long last, topics such as genetic engineering and cladistics are treated competently in a basic zoology textbook. Allan Larson has provided a clear description of cladistics, with many heuristic examples, while retaining a section about conventional Linnaen classification.

I am particularly impressed by how the authors have handled animal diversity. Instead of entangling students in mind-numbing catalogs of animal forms, they present diversity as the awe-inspiring result of variations on a theme. Moreover, they specifically refute the old misconception of the scala naturae ("the ladder of nature"), which held that living things formed a single hierarchy that ascended from "simple" and defective organisms to increasingly "complex" ones, with the human as nature's crowning "achievement."

After much sifting, I have discovered something in Biology of Animals that I can criticize. While the authors give adequate attention to evolution, they devote hardly any space to the concept of adaptation, and one of their references to adaptation (on pages 702 and 703) is confused. They write that "Many lizards live in the world's hot and arid regions, aided by several adaptations for desert life" and that these "adaptations" include the absence of skin glands and the production of semisolid urine that contains a lot of uric acid. In fact, those features are characteristic of all reptiles. They are not specific to reptiles that live in deserts, and they did not arise in response to selection in arid regions.

This minor criticism can hardly mar my high opinion of Biology of Animals, of course. Reviewing this book has been a pleasure. Biology of Animals has been as inspiring to me as it will be to high-school students, and I give it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.


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.

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