from The Textbook Letter, January-February 1996

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Biology: Living Systems
1994. 966 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-02-800672-0.
Glencoe Division, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill School Publishing Company,
936 Eastwind Drive, Westerville, Ohio 43081.

Smiling Jack's Religious Tract

William J. Bennetta

Biology: Living Systems is dated in 1994, and I first encountered it in Glencoe's 1994 catalogue of science textbooks for grades 6 through 12. That catalogue opened with a photograph of Glencoe's president, Jack Witmer, who was displaying a big smile. The photo was accompanied by a letter that Witmer had written to "Dear Educator," and the letter began with: "In [this] Glencoe Catalog, you'll see ample evidence on every page of our commitment to providing you with the most up-to-date textbooks available."

Maybe Witmer had composed the letter without looking at the textbooks. Or maybe he had seen the books. Maybe his smile meant that he found amusement in the idea of applying the phrase "up-to-date" to a tired old fake like Living Systems.

I have acquired three major impressions from my reading of Living Systems, and the first of these is a vision of chaos. To me, Living Systems looks like a mess of bits and pieces, obtained from various sources, that were pasted together by drones who knew almost nothing of biology, had little idea of what might be related to what, and were concerned mainly with creating a glitzy product that would look good at first glance. The Glencoe paste-pushers seem not to have noticed that much of the "biology" in Living Systems is wrong, laughably obsolete or utterly idiotic, but they have been diligent in loading the book's pages with faddish sidebars and other pieces of trendy junk. A lot of these lack any detectable relation to the chapters in which they appear, and some lack any detectable link to biology. As far as I can see, their major effects are to create confusion and to testify that Living Systems is intended chiefly for sale to educators who adopt books without reading them.

My second impression is one of antiquity. If Living Systems can be said to have any themes, the themes are anthropocentricity and natural theology. Although neither of these plays any role in biology, both of them enjoy popularity in various religious quarters. Anthropocentricity is the ancient precept that man is the most important thing in the universe and that all of nature revolves around human life and human desires. Natural theology is a body of religious doctrine, dating from the early 1800s, which rests upon the notion that nature is purposeful, rational and benign. Some of the more ridiculous passages in Living Systems occur where Glencoe's writers, in trying to make natural theology look scientific, have spatchcocked terms like "genes" or "adapted" into religious tales.

My third impression is a feeling that Living Systems has some historical significance, and that our major education libraries should acquire copies of it. This book is so sleazy, so anachronistic, so irrelevant and so downright silly that it will be useful, I believe, to any scholars who may want to examine the decline of science education in the United States.

A Parody of Biology

Living Systems has seven units -- "The Nature of Biology," "Energy and the Cell," "The Continuation of Life," "Evolutionary Relationships," "Life Functions of Organisms," "Controlling Living Systems" and "Interactions in the Environment." Those are nice titles, but they give only a poor idea of the book's content, and they don't convey what the book really is about.

At bottom, Living Systems is a book about humans. Indeed, I suspect that it may have originated as an attempt to get some new mileage out of a mass of old material that dealt with human anatomy and physiology. Sure, the book mentions other organisms, and the paste-pushers have thrown in some chapters that purport to tell about evolution and ecology and what-have-you, but the result is silly. The material about evolution and ecology is hopelessly dumb and does little to divert attention from the book's anthropocentric stance, and I doubt that anyone who really reads Living Systems will mistake it for a general-biology text. Its preoccupation with humans is far too conspicuous, and so is its contemptuous, distorted treatment of the rest of the living world.

A substantial pile of the material in Living Systems consists of human biology (especially human physiology) that has been put into an unconvincing "comparative" context. This context is supplied by bits of information about some other living things, such as earthworms or grasshoppers. The discussion of digestion in animals, for example, consists of a short passage about digestion in Hydra, another about digestion in an earthworm, another about digestion in filter feeders, and then some fourteen pages about digestion in humans. The section on "Transport in Animals" comprises a page about circulation in an earthworm, a page about circulation in a grasshopper, an introductory passage about circulation in vertebrates, and then a dozen pages about circulation in man.

Now, there is nothing wrong with using a few selected organisms (or "types," as they are called) to illustrate principles of form and function, and this approach has always been the mainstay of courses in comparative physiology and comparative anatomy. It is absolutely unacceptable, however, in the teaching of introductory biology. It forces the beginning student to adopt a fragmented, simplistic, typological view of the living world, and this view is antithetical to today's biology. Today's biology rejects simple-minded typology while emphasizing organic diversity, evolutionary connections among lineages, and the evolutionary origins of adaptations. One would never guess this from reading Living Systems.

The practice of focusing on a few types also dictates that many important groups of organisms must be ignored entirely or must be dismissed with a mere nod, as is done in Living Systems. This book doesn't present any respectable survey of living things, and it dispatches entire phyla in cursory passages that say almost nothing. For example, the mollusks get only one page (in chapter 17), and that page merely presents three paragraphs of fluffy text and four useless pictures. There is no analysis of the mollusks' spectacular morphological diversity, their evolution, their many ecological roles, or their amazingly diverse modes of reproduction. Even if the student eventually reads the silly section titled "Sexual Reproduction in Animals" (in chapter 18), he remains entirely ignorant of how mollusks reproduce, because the few animal types that are cited in that section don't include any mollusks. If this seems to be a minor matter, please recall that the essential business of every organism is to appropriate resources and to use them in producing copies of itself. If a student learns what resources an organism needs and how the organism breeds, the student has made a start toward understanding what the organism is and how it fits into the living world. If a student does not learn those things, he can't understand the organism at all -- and he surely can't see the organism as biologists see it.

There is worse. The index in this "biology" book has no entry for Fish or Fishes -- and in a way, the index is right. Though the bony fishes constitute the largest and most diverse class of vertebrates, the treatment of fishes in Living Systems consists merely of some mentionings, scattered in several chapters. I can see why Glencoe's indexer didn't think that any Fish entry was needed. In my own estimation, however, some of the mentionings are highly significant, because they are so eminently ignorant. I shall examine three of them in later parts of this review.

Living Systems, then, offers not biology but an anthropocentric parody of biology. The writers continually put so much emphasis on humans, and give so little notice to anything else, that their message is quite inescapable: Man is nature's paragon and is the only organism that merits serious attention.

The writers preach anthropocentricity in other ways, too, such as the use of absurd claims and distortive omissions to sustain the notion of "nature's ladder." According to that old, discredited doctrine, living things could be arranged in a continuous series that started with lowly and defective creatures, then progressed through "higher" forms that were increasingly more "complex" and admirable. The series culminated in the mammals, and the mammals culminated in man -- the finest and most admirable creature of them all.

Fake "biology" books have been peddling that stuff for as long as I can remember, and I am not surprised to see it showing up again. Let me cite a few cases to show you how "nature's ladder" is reflected specifically in Living Systems:

Do the writers really believe that stuff about inept fishes, agile mammals, and increasing "complexity"? Maybe so. Superstitions based on "nature's ladder" are common among people who don't understand evolution and who retain a pre-Darwinian view of nature; and as we now shall see, Glencoe's writers are such people.

Faking It

Evolution is the grand, unifying concept of modern biology, and no biology text can be judged competent and current unless it reflects this. During the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the only high-school biology textbooks that even came close to meeting this test were the ones developed by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS). The rest were fakes: Crooked textbook-writers -- seeking to placate fundamentalists -- trivialized evolution, misrepresented it as an idle notion, buried it in double-talk, or omitted it entirely.

By the late 1980s, however, the fundamentalists' influence had waned in much of the country, and the big schoolbook-publishers perceived a demand for biology books that would present the biology of the 20th century. Accordingly, the publishers undertook to produce new books that would include a lot of conspicuous references to evolution, in both text and illustrations, and thus would appear to be modern.

The results of these efforts have often been grotesque. The writers employed by most of the textbook companies don't understand evolutionary biology, don't understand how evolutionary thinking pervades and unites the various branches of biology, and don't even know who Darwin was or what he did. And instead of trying to learn, they have resorted to a lot of faking. They have searched about for ready-made stuff that seems to have something to do with evolution, and they have rewritten that stuff in the dim light of their own ignorance.

This is what we find in Living Systems. The text has plenty of sentences about evolutionary this and evolutionary that, there are diagrams that allegedly show phylogenies, and we find 28 entries under the word evolution in the book's index. This display seems rather impressive until we notice that it is mostly phony, that Glencoe's writers have very little idea of what evolution is or how it works, and that they often have turned their ready-made starting material into gobbledygook.

To see what I mean, turn to the chapter called "Adaptation and Speciation." Here the writers try to say something about convergent evolution, but they somehow manage to muddle convergence with homology, producing pure nonsense. An illustration shows a porpoise and some bony fish, and the caption says:

Although dolphins (right) have the same streamlined body shape as many kinds of fishes (left) their body structures are homologous with those of other mammals, not with fishes.

But in truth, many "body structures" of porpoises -- including such definitive items as jaws, vertebrae, limb girdles and limbs -- are homologous with structures in bony fishes. The porpoises and fishes have inherited these structures from a common ancestor, and convergence has nothing to do with the matter.

The accompanying text makes things much worse:

Examples of convergent evolution are easy to spot. Think about fish and dolphins. The ancestor of all fish was a simple marine organism. Dolphins, though, are descendants of land mammals. Fish and dolphins, then, are not at all closely related. Both have a streamlined shape for swimming. Fish have fins, but the finlike structures of dolphins are not homologous; they are really modified limbs. . . .

So Glencoe's writers fail to grasp that all vertebrates share an ancestor, that the "ancestor of all fish" was also the ancestor of all mammals, and that mammalian limbs are legacies from an ancient, bony-finned progenitor. The forelimbs of porpoises (and of all the other mammals) are homologous with the pectoral fins of bony fishes, no matter what these writers may claim.

Other examples of nonsense abound, such as the stupefying stuff about "Natural Selection in Gene Pools" (page 323). Here the confused, erroneous text invokes an example involving diploid organisms, but the accompanying illustration shows organisms that are haploid, and the resulting mess makes no sense.

In my view, however, the writers most effectively display their ignorance when they try to make old, worthless notions seem legitimate by cloaking them in quasievolutionary lingo. This brings me to the book's second theme: natural theology.

That Old-Time Religion

Natural theology, a system for studying nature in terms of biblical religion, was popularized some 200 years ago by the English churchman William Paley. Paley and his followers saw nature as a rational system that had been fashioned by a divine creator for the benefit of man, and they believed that all the organisms in the system existed for the purpose of being helpful, both to man and to each other. This principle gave rise to various subsidiary notions, including the idea that predators and prey were allies -- collaborators that helped each other to prosper and to perpetuate a benevolent, divinely prescribed order.

Natural theology has remained popular, among the poorly educated, to this day. And though it has no scientific import at all, it still shows up in some schoolbooks that purport to tell about science. For example, I've found that it plays conspicuous roles in Kendall/Hunt's Middle School Life Science and Merrill's Biology: The Dynamics of Life. (See "When the Shark Bites with His Teeth, Dear, Remember That It's All for the Best" in TTL for November-December 1991, and "Old Paley Strikes Again" in TTL for September-October 1992.) Now I see that it is being promoted anew in Living Systems. Read, for example, this passage on page 768, in the chapter titled "Population Biology":

Predation is healthy for a prey population. Very often, the prey caught and killed are those that are very young, very old, or less capable of coping with the environment. Thus, the healthiest, best-adapted individuals are most likely to survive, reproduce, and pass their genes on to the next generation. In this sense, predation is a form of natural selection that benefits the population as a whole.

That blather, which has no basis in fact, comes directly from natural theology. It's just a restatement of the notion that nature is rational and that the actions of organisms conform to a beneficent plan. Glencoe's writers have tried to make it look scientific by using modern terms like "genes" and "natural selection," but it is still absurd. Think of how a baleen whale plows along and engulfs all the krill in its path, no matter how young or old or sick or healthy they may be; think of a beetle feeding on aphids; think of an anemone snagging copepods; think of how frog-eating bats grab frogs that have congregated to breed; think of a group of marlin as they systematically devour a whole school of anchoveta; think of how bears grab salmon out of a stream as the salmon make their spawning run. Can anyone really believe that predators selectively purge prey populations of their old, sick and weak members?

As for the Glencoe writers' notion that natural selection works on the population as a whole: That too is absurd; populations are not the units of selection -- and neither are genes.

The writers deliver another dose of Paleyism on page 773, as they mention dominance hierarchies:

If conditions are such that not every individual can eat and mate, then at least the more dominant ones will be able to do so. These members are usually the better adapted. Thus, a social hierarchy is good insurance that the most adaptive genes are the ones passed on.

The writers have tried again to make a comfy religious doctrine look like science by flashing some scientific terms -- "dominant" and "better adapted" and "adaptive genes" -- but they have dodged the obvious question: For what are these "dominant" individuals "better adapted"? The answer is quite unremarkable: Dominant individuals are better adapted for becoming dominant. The writers, though, apparently want the student to believe that dominant individuals are "better adapted" for everything and anything, so the perpetuation of their "adaptive genes" is (in some unstated, mystical way) proper and good. That is teleological nonsense.

If you want some more, go to page 775 and read the fluffy little section on "Territoriality." The writers -- who seem to think that territoriality exists only in birds and mammals, and who seem unaware of the functional differences between territories held by individuals and territories held by groups -- conclude with this sermon:

[Territoriality] spreads the members of a population over a large area, thus ensuring a better food supply for all members. In addition, it is usually the strongest, largest, most aggressive, and otherwise best-adapted members of the species that win a territory and mate. Thus, their genes are the ones most likely to be passed on.

That is almost the same as the hokum about hierarchies, and just as silly. Is there any reason why an individual that wins a mating contest must also be "otherwise best-adapted"? No, there isn't. In fact, the physical and behavioral traits that are advantageous in a mating contest may be highly disadvantageous and maladaptive in the context of day-to-day survival. Darwin recognized this more than a century ago, in his work on sexual selection, but Glencoe's writers are clearly unaware of it.

Funny Flapdoodle

Some of the flapdoodle in Living Systems seems really funny when I recall Smiling Jack's claim about "up-to-date textbooks." Consider, for example, this two-paragraph passage that is introduced by the heading "Genetic Engineering":

Using selective breeding, geneticists have produced new strains of plants, such as rice and wheat, that produce more grain per plant than other varieties. The new strains also respond well to chemical fertilizers. An acre of land planted with these new strains can produce food for more people than the same acre planted with other varieties.

Geneticists have also begun developing a strain of corn that is richer in protein than other types of corn. This protein-rich strain is not yet ready for use because it has several undesirable traits that must be bred out of it, including soft kernels and lack of resistance to pests.

What, pray tell, does that have to do with genetic engineering? Though the term genetic engineering has been in common use for some twenty years, Glencoe's writers don't seem to know what it means. They obviously think that it means selective breeding -- and I can't help laughing.

Here are some other aspects of Living Systems that I've noticed during my reading:

Bogus history

Living Systems says very little about the history of biology. It does not even acknowledge the great Europeans who founded the scientific study of human anatomy and physiology, the subjects with which this book is so keenly preoccupied. Da Vinci? Vesalius? Malpighi? Harvey? Glencoe's writers seem not to have heard of them.

On those few occasions when the writers do try to say something about the science of the past, they typically offer nothing more than the recycling of some old fictions. Their brief passage about Redi, for example, is as phony as it is familiar. They seem to have copied material from some other schoolbook, rather than trying to find out what Redi really did and really observed. The passage about Darwin is phony, too, and it includes the old myth in which Darwin visits the Galapagos and gets a brain-wave:

The similarities between Galapagos plants, birds, amphibians, and reptiles and those of distant lands [?] persuaded Darwin that despite their uniqueness, the Galapagos organisms were all related to the more common [?] forms. By the end of the trip, Darwin was convinced that evolution occurs -- that life forms can and do change.

Wrong. Darwin did not become "convinced" until he had returned to England, had begun to analyze his collections, and had received John Gould's interpretations of the Galapagos birds. (Incidentally, the Galapagos Archipelago has no amphibians. The writers have embellished their false story with fictitious animals.)

Absurd treatment of ecology

The unit about ecology is ridiculous. Since Living Systems revolves around humans, the Glencoe staffers could have produced a relevant ecology unit by focusing on some of the anatomical, physiological and cultural adaptations that have evolved in various groups of humans, reflecting the demands of various environments. Instead, they have just cobbled the usual stuff about the usual topics -- trophic levels, biomes, competition, conservation, pesticides and blah-blah-blah -- to produce a unit that is unrelated to the rest of the book.

The unit is all the worse because it is laden with nonsense. It contains the displays of natural theology that I've described above, and the silliness doesn't stop there. Notice, for example, the claim that intraspecific competition "is more severe than interspecific competition because all members of the species have the same requirements." The truth is that intraspecific competition is measured by its effects on individuals, interspecific competition is measured by its effects on populations, and the two sets of effects can't be compared. Hence it is meaningless to say that either form of competition is "more severe" than the other.

The chapter titled "Humans and the Environment" relies chiefly on platitudes, vague statements, and obsolete material. It fails to demonstrate that overpopulation is the common factor in nearly all of the destruction that we humans are inflicting on the rest of nature, it ignores many of our worst follies (such as the ruining of marine fisheries or the depletion of sources of fresh water), and it says nothing about the ways in which governments promote such actions. The passage on "Forest Conservation" -- a load of fluff that seems to have been taken from timber-company handouts -- bears no evident connection to reality. Neither does the chapter's final section, in which a bunch of mawkish, feel-good slogans are presented under the heading "Cause for Optimism."

Irrelevant treatment of human reproduction

The book's account of human reproduction is just a lot of stuff about cells and ducts and fluids. There is nothing about sexual behavior, and there is nothing about our ability to manage our own breeding by using technology. This ability is the grand difference between reproduction in humans and reproduction in bats or goats or shrews, and it has vast practical significance, but in Living Systems it is simply ignored. In Living Systems entire pages are squandered on accounts of arcane techno-marvels like positron emission tomography, fetal surgery and artificial skin, but there is no explanation of birth-control technology and its continually increasing importance in human affairs. How's that for irrelevance?

The phony "experiment"

The "Skill Handbook" at the back of Living Systems has a section called "Practicing Scientific Methods," in which the Glencoe writers present one of their most pathetic exhibitions. They try to say something about hypotheses, but the "hypotheses" that they list are bogus. Then they claim that "To be valid, a hypothesis must be testable by experimentation"; that notion is false, of course. Then they describe a procedure involving some guppies, and they say that it represents a controlled experiment. It actually represents sheer nonsense (complete with "data" that are meaningless), and the nonsense is quite familiar. The same fake "experiment" appeared in the "Skill Handbook" in the 1993 version of Merrill Life Science, another Glencoe book. See TTL, January-February 1993.

Gross pandering

While Living Systems tells very little about the great figures in the history of biology, it tells a lot about individuals who are utterly extraneous. In a chapter called "Development," for example, roughly a page is given to a mawkish sidebar about one Helen Cordero, a "Pueblo artist" who makes grotesque figurines called storytellers. Why this article has been stuck into a book titled Living Systems seems a mystery, and the writers underline the article's irrelevance by posing this exercise for students: "Writing About Biology: Find out more about the art forms of the Pueblo Indians in northern New Mexico. Are there other popular art forms, in addition to storytellers? Write a short report on your findings." I doubt that even the dimmest student will mistake that for "writing about biology."

The Cordero sidebar isn't unique. It is one of various irrelevant articles -- headlined "Art Connection" or "Literature Connection" -- that are scattered throughout the book. On the art side, for example, we find odd sidebars about painters named Roberto Juarez, Patricia Gonzalez and Carmen Garza, and we even see a painting by Diego Rivera; on the literature side, the entries include an American Indian story about crows, a gushy article about a poetess called Akasha Hull, and a thoroughly weird piece about American Indians' names. I don't mean that all of the art sidebars and literature sidebars are worthless, but I do mean that most of them are worthless and worse: They have absolutely nothing to do with biology, their irrelevance is manifest, and (as far as I can tell) they serve no purpose except racial and tribal pandering. I have seen similar things in other books, but I find that the pandering in Living Systems is especially gross and insulting.


As I said earlier, I feel that Living Systems is so remarkably bad that it should be preserved in our educational archives. It has no place, however, in any biology classroom.

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 frequently about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.


Pointer return to top
Pointer go to Home Page
Pointer read the Index List, which shows all the textbooks, curriculum manuals,
     videos and other items that are considered on this Web site
Pointer contact William J. Bennetta by e-mail