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from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1995

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Biological Science: A Molecular Approach
Seventh edition, 1996. 817 pages. ISBN: 0-669-31600-8.
Copyrighted by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study,
Colorado Springs, Colorado. Published by D.C. Heath and
Company, 125 Spring Street, Lexington, Massachusetts 02173.

The Revisions Are Feeble,
the Book Is Still Valuable

David L. Jameson

Biological Science: A Molecular Approach, developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS), is the venerable textbook commonly called the BSCS Blue Version or just "the BSCS Blue." The seventh edition, dated in 1996, is little changed from the sixth edition (which was issued in 1990), and all the major points that I made in my review of the sixth are still applicable.

[Editor's note: Two reviews of the sixth edition ran in The Textbook Letter for September-October 1994, under these headlines: "A Valuable Textbook with a Dubious Title" and "It's Tried and Mostly True, but It Could Be a Lot Better."]

The new edition, like the sixth, is well written, concise and appropriate for high-school students. Most of the illustrations are excellent, and most of the sidebars and special articles and appendices are useful. While the book does not focus on molecular biology as strongly as it could and should, I would not hesitate to use it in a high-school course. For teachers who want to move away from traditional biology books, Biological Science: A Molecular Approach is a top choice.

What about teachers who already are using the sixth edition? Should they spend their limited funds to buy the seventh? The answer here is a firm no. The differences between the two versions are too few and too small to justify such an expenditure.

When I analyzed the sixth edition, I said that the BSCS writers had missed important opportunities to develop the "molecular approach" promised by the book's title. These failings persist in the new edition, and they seem to be all the more obvious because molecular biology has advanced so much since 1990. For example, the book still says little about the molecular basis of cancer or about how humans are damaged, at the molecular level, by tobacco smoke or by industrial pollutants. We know a great deal about these matters now, and they should be emphasized in any introductory biology text that professes to take a molecular approach to biology, but they do not receive enough attention in this BSCS book.

Another disappointment is the writers' handling of AIDS. The "Focus on AIDS" sidebar (page 465) has been changed, but I would not say that it has been improved or that it tells students what they need to know. The section about AIDS on page 3 has been rewritten and has acquired a new title: It is now called "AIDS -- A Serious Global Problem," though it does not say anything at all about where AIDS occurs, or anything to suggest that AIDS is "global." The rewritten text does acknowledge that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) evolves rapidly, but it fails to explain this point in molecular terms. The rapid molecular evolution of HIV (and of influenza viruses, too) could have been used as the starting point for a discussion of why epidemics recur as pathogens undergo modification.

Dubious Material

On page 274 a "Biological Challenges" article about sex chromosomes has been replaced by an article on the human genome project, but the new piece is very weak. It is out-of-date by five years, it fails to describe what the project is really about, it gives scant attention to the remarkable, rapid successes that the project has produced, and it has a lot of dubious material about "concerns" raised by "critics" who evidently have no names. (For example: "Some critics believe that the genome project gives too much emphasis to the genetic components of human characteristics while ignoring the environmental components." Is that really supposed to be a criticism? How could a gene-mapping project give too much emphasis to genes? Would any rational person expect a gene-mapping project to emphasize "environmental components"?)

Chapter 14, "Development in Animals," has been reworked, but the three studies that it emphasizes were done in 1952, in the mid-1970s, and in the 1920s respectively. There still is no hint of the major advances that we have made in understanding molecular aspects of animal development, such as the molecular basis of body plans. At the end of the chapter, a "Biological Challenges" article about fruit flies has been replaced by an article about slime molds, which aren't even animals. (Will students be thrilled by this? Does the substitution of a slime-mold article for a fruit-fly article serve any pedagogic function?) After some three decades of quiescence, the scientific study of development has begun to move again. Students deserve an up-to-date chapter that reflects this.

Many illustrations have been replaced or have been reprinted with new colors, but few of these changes seem to have any instructional purpose. Some of the color changes may reflect constraints imposed by the printing process, but I doubt it; and I fail to see that anything has been gained by substituting a pretty picture of newly hatched flickers for a pretty picture of a newly born opossum (page 314), or substituting one pretty picture of a lizard for another pretty picture of a lizard (page 358), or substituting one pretty picture of a leaf for another pretty picture of a leaf (page 426). Such changes may help to make work for illustrators, or may help to make the book more marketable by making it look "new," but neither of those functions has anything to do with good science or with education. (To be fair, I must acknowledge that two of the new illustrations seem to do some good. In the chapter about immune systems, the new figures 20.14 and 20.15 are better instructional tools than were the analogous figures in the sixth edition.)

While many pictures have been changed for no perceptible reason, some illustrations that definitely should have been improved or removed are still in place. For example, page 8 still has two pictures and a caption which suggest that the clipping of dogs' ears has something to do with Lamarck's views of heredity and evolution. That is not correct. [Please see "The Imaginary Lamarck" in TTL for September-October 1994.] The unit about evolution still has only one illustration showing a phylogenetic tree based on biochemical similarities; the tree is still mislabeled, and the caption still does not indicate what kind of molecule was studied.

Some revisions in the new book's text and sidebars suggest attempts to achieve "political correctness." But at the same time, the writers have eliminated a biographical article about the remarkable Barbara McClintock, who has been an inspiration to at least two generations of women scientists.

By now, the BSCS writers should have started work on yet another edition. I hope that they will do a better job of exploiting opportunities to take a "molecular approach" to high-school biology.

Are you listening, BSCS?


David L. Jameson is a senior research fellow of the Osher Laboratory of Molecular Systematics at the California Academy of Sciences. He has written books about evolutionary genetics and the genetics of speciation, and he is a coauthor of a college-level general-biology text.

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