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from The Textbook Letter, May-June 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Addison-Wesley Biology
1996. 952 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-201-86439-8.
The Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.,
2725 Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, California 94025.

This Lame "Second Edition"
Shows Few Changes

William J. Bennetta

Please don't be misled. Although the 1996 version of Addison-Wesley Biology has the label "Second Edition" on its cover and on its spine, it is essentially a reprint of the 1994 version. Addison-Wesley Biology is still a lame and unacceptable book, and its content is still dominated by fakery.

Its pages are still misnumbered, too, and I think that this merits some comment. In the United States a well established convention dictates that any book's main text should begin on a right-hand page, which should be odd-numbered. That prescription, though, is quite incompatible with a notion that has captivated many of the people who design schoolbooks -- the notion that every major part of a book must begin with a glitzy spread. Hence we see more and more schoolbooks in which even the numbering of the pages is bogus. In some of these books, the first unit starts on a spread consisting of pages "2" and "3" -- and there is no page 1 at all. In other books, such as Addison-Wesley Biology, the opening unit starts on a spread comprising an unnumbered left-hand page and a right-hand page "1" that actually is page 2. Schoolbook-designers presumably think that these stunts will dazzle the rubes and bumpkins.

When I reviewed the 1994 version of Addison-Wesley Biology, I began by describing one of its displays of buffoonery: The Addison-Wesley writers had tried to concoct a "Critical Thinking" exercise involving the slogan "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," but they had got the slogan backwards! In the 1996 book, the slogan has been corrected, but the exercise is otherwise unchanged -- "There is a saying, 'Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.' Look up each of the words in the dictionary. Restate the saying in your own words. Explain how this saying relates to evolution."

I can do better than that. I suggest this alternative:

The old slogan "Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" summarized an idea put forth in 1866 by the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel claimed that he had discovered an important "law" of biology, but he was wrong -- and his "law" fell as scientists learned more about genetics. Go to a library and read about the rise and fall of Haeckel's "law." Then try to learn why the writers of junky schoolbooks are still using the "law" in bogus exercises.

Another item that I cited in my review of the 1994 book was a loopy article called "Native American Agriculture," which was a heap of false or misleading claims about Amerindians. (See "Chief Thunderbottom, the Panderer's Friend" in TTL, November-December 1994, page 6.) The 1996 book has, instead, a piece called "The Columbian Exchange." The new article is less bizarre, in terms of content -- but like the old article, it is out of place and pointless. It seems merely to be another attempt to exploit the recent fad which calls for larding textbooks with irrelevant stories about Indians.

Some of the most egregious passages that appeared in the 1994 book are still in place, either unchanged or with alterations that have achieved nothing. For example:

On the other hand, I have found some small changes that qualify as genuine improvements. For example: Even though the writers still can't explain how an ice-minus bacterium "helps some plants resist frost damage" (page 196), they no longer are asserting that the bacterium keeps the plants warm. And though they haven't yet learned what doves or pigeons are (page 606), they at least have stopped saying that "Doves and pigeons are two closely related species."

The 1996 book, like its precursor, has 48 full-page "Laboratory Activities" -- and despite some changes here and there, these still constitute a repetitive exercise in fakery. A typical "Activity" is just a simple demonstration that has been disguised to suggest that the student is investigating a "Hypothesis." In each of 35 cases, by my count, the disguise fails miserably: The "Hypothesis" is empty drivel and isn't a hypothesis at all, or the "Hypothesis" isn't tested by the prescribed procedure. As I said in my review of the 1994 book, the "Activities" in Addison-Wesley Biology seem goofy at best, and often pernicious. No student should be subjected to them.

I conclude by noting the modifications to which Addison-Wesley's writers and editors apparently accorded most of their attention during the preparation of this "Second Edition." In the page-margins, all of the items marked "Model The Concept" have gained an additional label: "Activity." And some page-margins have new little items marked "BioJournal," which describe things that students can do to waste time. The label "BioJournal" has been printed in two colors. All the rubes, presumably, will swoon with delight.


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.

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