Sunday, November 8, 2020

General Biology Education: The Same Old Same Old


There 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, though.)

This 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.

At 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.

One 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.

My 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.

This 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 biology education.

I 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:


  • Energy going into and out of the organism
  • Molecules going into and out of the organism
  • Internal integration of processes in the organism
  • Response to external events in the environment

It 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, including behavior.

My proposed merging of plant and animal topics was even more radical than my chapter order. Reviewers liked it but found it very inconvenient.

I 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.

  • Time: Evolution, and an overview of organisms in an evolutionary framework
  • Energy: Where it comes from, e.g., photosynthesis, and how organisms use it (and matter)
  • Information: How organisms are organized, e.g. DNA, how cells develop, how organisms perceive their environments, and social and ecological community organization.

At 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.

I 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.

And 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.

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