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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1998

Reviewing a high-school book in biology

Prentice Hall Biology: The Living Science
1998. 974 pages. ISBN of the student's edition: 0-13-415563-7.
Prentice Hall, 1 Lake Street, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458.

This New Prentice Hall Book
Appears to Rely on Mimicry

Lawrence Davis

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Prentice Hall Biology: The Living Science seems to be a sincere tribute to Holt's Biology: Visualizing Life, a text that I have reviewed in its 1994 and 1998 versions. When The Living Science and the 1998 Visualizing Life are viewed together, they look like two peas from the same pod. They have their differences, however -- just as two peas in a pod, though they seem to be interchangeable, harbor genetic differences.

Up front, The Living Science has a 24-page table of contents, decorated with about 75 colorful but unlabeled pictures. What this does for students who use the book is not clear. If The Living Science were a Web site, the pictures and lengthy lists in the table of contents could serve as "hot-button" links to substantive information -- but here they seem to serve principally as marketing devices, intended to impress adoption committees. (In the 1998 version of Visualizing Life, the table of contents is shorter but it is far from modest -- 14 pages with nearly 40 pictures.)

Though The Living Science is about 80 pages longer that the 1998 version of Visualizing Life, the two books have approximately the same amount of text. The chief reason why The Living Science is longer is that Prentice Hall has allocated more pages to introductory spreads at the beginnings of units, to review-and-assessment sections at the ends of chapters, to laboratory exercises, and to other auxiliary items. In the end, we find that each book has about 500 pages that nominally are devoted to text, with an average of some 250 words per page. The text in The Living Science has 10% fewer lines per inch, but it has about 10% more characters per line.

The Living Science, like Visualizing Life, is built around a profuse use of illustrations. Most of the pictures in The Living Science are appropriate to the accompanying text, and some of them are unusually helpful. Figure 8-13, for example, presents the genetic code in a novel, circular format that nicely illustrates many of the relationships among amino acids. And the book's phylogenetic trees, when carefully examined, generally prove to be current: In telling when groups of organisms diverged from each other, these diagrams do as well as today's science allows. It's worth remarking that figure 17-12, a grand two-page phylogenetic schematic of all life on Earth, indicates that the green algae have a close relationship to plants. This is not what students learn from the book's text, where the green algae are simply lumped with many other organisms in the catch-all category Protista.

One thing that seems a bit odd is that 25 of the illustrations in The Living Science have big headlines which start with the word "Visualizing" -- e.g., "Visualizing Respiration," "Visualizing Nutrient Cycles," "Visualizing a Grasshopper" and "Visualizing a Bird." These 25 items are even listed separately in the book's table of contents (under the heading "Visualizing . . ."), though there is nothing special about them. Most instructors would consider them to be nothing more than big, ordinary diagrams. Why they've been put in a category of their own is a mystery.

The "Visualizing" pages that purport to explain nutrient cycles go little beyond what was known 50 years ago, and the diagram of the nitrogen cycle (on page 294) is ambiguous and incomprehensible. Has the illustrator used the term "nitrogen fixation" to mean biological nitrogen fixation? If so, the diagram is wrong in teaching that "nitrogen fixation" converts atmospheric N2 to ammonium, nitrate and nitrite ions. It was shown about 50 years ago that only ammonium is produced by enzyme systems. The diagram of the carbon cycle is obsolete too, for it fails to show that chemosynthetic microbes in the deep sea play an important role in carbon fixation. This is a key issue in global-warming scenarios.

In some other cases, illustrations are plainly and unambiguously erroneous, and they misinform the student in a big way. (Fortunately, this does not happen often.) On page 312 the drawing titled "Exponential Growth" does not show the progressive doubling described in the text -- it shows a power function that takes off like a rocket. On the next page, in figure 14-3, the parts of the "growth-with-limits" curve have been mislabeled by someone who doesn't understand the mathematics involved. The photographic illustration on page 257 is supposed to show the use of bacteria for testing an antibiotic, but it really is a very fine depiction of a dilution series. On page 368 the photo of "contour plowing" actually shows the terracing of steep hillsides in some East Asian country. And as in most high-school biology books, the photo illustrating "diffusion" actually shows convection (page 55). Thus far, Visualizing Life is the only high-school book that I've seen in which there is a valid depiction of diffusion.

Many of the colored drawings in The Living Science are too vague: The Prentice Hall artists have done such odd things as showing a leaf's mesophyll cells suspended in space, or omitting all of the external parts of the human female's reproductive system. The illustrations of human sensory organs are rather weak, though high-quality medical illustrations of all those organs are readily available and could have served as models.

Obsolete Taxonomy

The Living Science retains a traditional classification scheme based on a handful of kingdoms. I doubt whether this is helpful to students, though some teachers may find it comforting. Modern taxonomy emphasizes three grand divisions -- the Archaea, the Eubacteria and the Eukaryota, each of them separated from the others by comparably deep branching. (The Archaea are not limited to "the most extreme environments imaginable," as The Living Science alleges on page 400. These organisms actually live all over the place. What is limited is our ability to culture them.)

Similarly, it is not helpful to perpetuate the so-called kingdom Protista -- an anachronistic collection of eukaryotic creatures whose only shared trait is that they haven't been included among the plants or the animals or the fungi. (Green algae and paramecia fit together about as well as India and Ireland used to fit together when both were parts of the British Empire: The only trait that they shared was that they didn't belong to the German, the French or the Spanish empire.) Today, by looking at sequences in proteins or ribosomal RNA, we can do much better than that.

Another failing of The Living Science is its series of 40 "Career Track" articles. The one on page 391, comprising a photograph and a single sentence of text, is typical. The photo shows three men, in a desert, wrestling with the skeleton of some ancient beast. (This skeleton, which is remarkably clean and fully assembled, must have come from a first-class museum or from a special-effects factory.) The text says: "If fossils of ancient organisms interest you, you may enjoy a career in paleontology, which is a branch of geology." In only one of the "Career Track" items is there a photo of an identified person. In the rest, the photos are just stock publicity shots. The "Career Track" theme would be much stronger if the articles were fewer but provided real information about real people.

For laboratory work, The Living Science offers a "Laboratory Investigation" and two short "Mini Lab" exercises in each of its 40 chapters. This is one of the book's strengths -- and the 40 "Investigation" sessions in The Living Science seem superior to the 34 lab activities in Visualizing Life, because they require much more hands-on effort by the students. In Visualizing Life, too many of the so-called laboratory procedures require the students to manipulate video displays, instead of organisms, and to "model" things that they never have seen in the real world. The Living Science provides exercises in which students get to work with some plants and "lower" animals. That is as far as it goes, however, for endothermic animals seem to be off-limits. Students don't get to examine chicken wings, beefsteaks or any other such artifacts, even though most students and their families consume these things at the dinner table. How about tofu steaks?

Overall, I find that the text and the illustrations in Visualizing Life seem somewhat stronger than those in The Living Science, but The Living Science has a better laboratory program. I would be hard pressed to choose between these two books.

I Like Holt's Book Better

William J. Bennetta

In Federico Fellini's wry, satirical film Ginger e Fred, an aging Italian dancer hurls contempt at an audience addicted to cheesy television entertainment. "Teledipendenti!" he snorts -- and in the version of Ginger e Fred that has English subtitles, his epithet is nicely rendered as "Videoholics!"

I am reminded of Fellini's film, and of those teledipendenti, whenever I encounter TV textbooks. TV texts are intended to appeal to videoholic teachers. They imitate the gaudy vulgarity of television programs, and they are characterized by garish design, by loads of flashy pictures, and by splurges of glitzy distractions. Most of them offer little else. Most of them are as empty as the giddy game shows and silly "news" shows that American teledipendenti love so much.

There are exceptions, though, because a few TV textbooks have some real content. An example is Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Biology: Visualizing Life. When I reviewed the 1994 version of that Holt book, I judged that it would be valuable for imparting some biology to students who did not plan to pursue higher education in science or to seek scientific careers.

Visualizing Life has been a commercial success, and Holt has since issued a second version, dated in 1998. Now, it seems, Prentice Hall has followed suit, for Prentice Hall Biology: The Living Science appears to be another version of Visualizing Life.

Throughout my reading of this Prentice Hall book, I have been struck by its resemblance to Visualizing Life -- a resemblance so pervasive and persistent that I ascribe it to deliberate imitation, rather than to mere coincidence. The Living Science, like Visualizing Life, is ruled by bizarre design and by a superabundance of pictures (many of which are oversized, weirdly shaped or weirdly placed) while the text has been chopped, whittled and squeezed to fit the spaces that remained after the pictures had been accommodated. And as if to make sure that even the dullest teledipendenti will recognize the similarity between The Living Science and Visualizing Life, the Prentice Hall designers have contrived 25 large, illustrated items whose titles include the word "Visualizing." In typical cases, each item occupies a whole page. As a group, the "Visualizing" displays seem to correspond to the "Tour" pages (e.g., "Tour of a Fish" or "Tour of a Bird") in the 1994 Visualizing Life.

Because The Living Science and Visualizing Life are so similar and are apparently aimed at the same population of teachers, the crucial question becomes: Which is the better book? My answer is: Visualizing Life.

Without doubt, The Living Science has some strong points, and one of these its supply of historical information. The main text offers valuable passages about the work of such men as Walter Reed (pages 16 through 18) and Thomas Hunt Morgan (pages 151 and 152) -- and the account of Charles Darwin and "Darwin's Revolution" (pages 219 through 233) is superb. I wish that the emphasis on history were even greater. The writers of our science texts must show students, again and again, how science works in the real world, and they must ensure that students will learn about pivotal scientific discoveries and outstanding scientists of the past. This is all the more important nowadays because the writers of many American-history and world-history textbooks -- in their efforts to pander to the multi-culti mob -- are shunning or trivializing the history of science and are hiding the importance of science and technology as historical forces.

The Living Science also has some good feature articles. One of them is "Patenting Life," a sober piece which deals chiefly with experience in the United States and which gives proper emphasis to the Plant Patent Act of 1930. Prentice Hall's exposition is diametrically different from the bogus, sensationalistic account given in West Publishing's multi-culti fraud United States History: In the Course of Human Events. (See my review titled "A Book of Far-Left Propaganda That Fosters Anti-Intellectualism" in The Textbook Letter, for January-February 1997.)

Still, I don't like The Living Science, and one reason why I don't like it is that it is too difficult to read. The people who designed Visualizing Life showed some restraint in the use of TV-textbook tactics, but Prentice Hall's designers have gone overboard and have loaded The Living Science with so many distractions and so much gingerbread that the main text is often hard to follow. All those flashy, overdone, superimposed illustrations and those faddish pseudopedagogic gimmicks may impress videoholic teachers, but they will only hinder students who try to find out what The Living Science has to say. (In at least one case, the designers' insistence on making things flashy has even led them to doctor a photograph. The photo, on page 688, allegedly depicts Helostoma temmincki, the fish that American aquarists call the kissing gourami. Prentice Hall has equipped this animal with dark-green fins. In reality, the fins of Helostoma temmincki are nearly colorless.)

The Living Science has scores of "Mini Lab" exercises -- but a lot of them are mere time-wasters, evidently contrived as excuses for displaying impressive, sciencey expressions such as "predict" and "design an experiment." The teledipendenti presumably like that sort of stuff.

Finally, there are too many instances of sloppiness. Look at page 8, for example. The "nematode" shown in the uppermost picture is not a nematode, the word kinorhynch is misspelled, and the writers say, with no explanation at all, that a phylum is a "special" category of the animal kingdom. I have no idea of what that is supposed to mean.

Taken as a whole, Prentice Hall Biology: The Living Science strikes me as a disappointing effort. I cannot recommend it.


Lawrence Davis is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry at Kansas State University (Manhattan, Kansas). His scientific interests include biological nitrogen fixation and the application of plants to the bioremediation of soils. He has taught plant genetics and plant physiology to high-school teachers for many years.

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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