was a time when dozens of general biology textbooks flooded the college market.
They were expensive to produce, but the market was huge. Students did not like
buying them, since they were expensive, but they did it. Writing a general
biology textbook that was widely adopted was a ticket to at least moderate wealth.
From 1992 to 2006, I was on that yellow-brick road. But I never got to the
Emerald City, as publishers canceled my contracts. (I got to keep the advances,
is no longer the case. One editor, who had once worked with me on the general
biology textbook that never went to press, said the market had imploded. This
is because the textbook itself is no longer very important. Is it well written?
Are the explanations clear? Nobody really cares anymore. The most important
things now are the online resources, such as homework and quizzes. I believed
that my textbook, focusing on world issues, was the best-written manuscript,
and I continued to believe it until the contract was canceled in 2006. I still
believe it. But now nobody seems to care whether the book is well-written, and
relevant to world issues, or not.
the time I started, as today, general biology textbooks were almost all alike.
They have an utterly predictable chapter order: The scientific method; cells,
genetics and biotech, evolution, an overview of organisms, then ecology. Last,
inexplicably, comes human anatomy and physiology.
problem with this approach was that the instructors sometimes did not get all
the way through the book, with the result that the very important ecological
concepts, such as overpopulation and global warming, get overlooked. Students
think that biology is all about memorizing the steps of mitosis and get no idea
that their decisions about how to live, what to buy, etc., all have immense
impacts on the ecosystem of the Earth. The most important concepts get left to
the end and get lost. Two authors, Joel Levine and Kenneth Miller,
disagreed, and published a textbook that began with ecology and ended with
cells and molecules. But, at least on the college level, their textbook was not
prominent in the marketplace.
textbook took a very different approach. In my original chapter order, the book
both began and ended with ecological concepts. The first chapters were
about what happened to energy and atoms: sunlight, photosynthesis, the cycling
of nutrients, etc., what is sometimes called autecology. Then came the chapters that worked their way up through
the typical chapter order, until reaching ecology again at the end. This time
it was about species interactions and ecological communities (often called synecology). I thought it was a
brilliant, circular alternative to the typical linear approach, whether the
standard cells-to-Earth order or the reverse Levine-Miller order. At first, one
major textbook publisher liked it too. But as they did their market analysis,
they found that my chapter order would not sell. They got me to change the
outline of the book until, just before they canceled it, the chapter order was
the same as everyone else’s. This company still does not have a general biology
textbook. They figured they could not penetrate the market, especially with a
book as unusual as mine.
approach, imbedding cells-to-heredity into an ecosystem context, had been successfully
used decades earlier, in the 1960s, in the “Green version” of High School
Biology, prepared by the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS)
committee of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. I am not aware that
this book is still in print; it may have last been in print in 1992. This
version of the book began with something that many kids had seen—a rabbit
hiding under a raspberry bush—and started asking questions about. Learning
biology was, therefore, a natural outgrowth of instinctive curiosity. There is
a good reason that this book remains one of the most famous in the history of
had another original and, I thought, unique feature. I did not separate animal
from plant anatomy and physiology. There were no chapters about the digestive
system, the nervous system, and plant growth. Instead, I identified four common
themes, then used both animal and plant examples of each. These are four
problems every organism must solve in order to survive and reproduce:
going into and out of the organism
going into and out of the organism
integration of processes in the organism
to external events in the environment
turns out that the famous evolutionary scientist George Gaylord Simpson had written
a textbook (Life: An Introduction to Biology) that put animal and plant
anatomy and physiology together: organic maintenance (procurement, use,
transportation, excretion), internal organization, and responsiveness,
proposed merging of plant and animal topics was even more radical than my
chapter order. Reviewers liked it but found it very inconvenient.
have before me a textbook written by a prominent scientist, Gordon Orians. It
is The Study of Life: An Introduction to Biology. His organization was
different from everyone else’s, including the Levine-Miller organization and my
own. His three themes were time, energy, and information.
Evolution, and an overview of organisms in an evolutionary framework
Where it comes from, e.g., photosynthesis, and how organisms use it (and
How organisms are organized, e.g. DNA, how cells develop, how organisms
perceive their environments, and social and ecological community organization.
a conference of the Botanical Society of America in 1995, during a symposium
that I helped organize, I heard Orians talk about this book, which was
published and of which sample copies were sent to people and committees for
their consideration. He said he had no adoptions. “I mean this literally,” he
added. I think he should be proud of his book: it showed his integrated
understanding of biology and its relation to the physical and human world. Its
failure was caused by the market.
can’t go around blaming biology teachers for getting into a rut of same old
same old. They are busy. I certainly am. I barely have time to manage classroom
duties, which now includes online interfaces. I certainly don’t have time to
rethink biology education anymore. Looking back on it, I was surprised that
(out of dozens of reviewers) so many of them were willing to reorganize their
entire courses to accommodate my chapter order, had the book been published. I
would have had, I estimated, about twenty adoptions. But since it takes a million
dollars to bring a textbook to the market, no company could make a profit from
this. I am not a failed idealist, but just a busy one, as I teach the same old
same old order of topics. We would have to completely revise the lab schedule
otherwise. The person who manages the labs does not have time to do this, nor
am I willing to volunteer my time to do it.
to most students it doesn’t matter. If they are willing to learn, and if the
instructor is willing to make the concepts interesting and relevant, they will
benefit immensely from general biology, no matter what the order it. Is one
chapter order more logical than another? The students do not, and probably
should not, care.