Reviewed by Cheryl Neudauer, Biology Faculty, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, on 12/6/2016.
This ten-chapter, 220-page, pdf textbook covers many topics that are usually found in a general biology textbook. These include scientific thinking,
Comprehensiveness rating: 3 read less
This ten-chapter, 220-page, pdf textbook covers many topics that are usually found in a general biology textbook. These include scientific thinking, life’s diversity and origins, evolution, reactions, membranes and energy, heredity, proteins, genes, and social systems. Using the Table of Contents and the Acrobat Find tool, topics such as cell cycle, phases of mitosis and meiosis, cellular signaling, and epigenetics were not found. The book starts with a three-page Table of Contents, but there is not an index nor glossary at the end of the book. Although the textbook has some diagrams and figures to help illustrate concepts, more visuals of experiments and biological structures and processes would be helpful. I noticed one figure citation, but the source of the others figures is unclear. The Preface notes the use of footnotes so students can delve into topics in more detail, and web links are often provided (some with brief descriptions and some without); adding additional links to help students understand and/or visualize key concepts would be helpful. Within each chapter are thought-provoking “Questions to answer and ponder.” There are many terms in the textbook, and it would be helpful if these were highlighted within the text and/or placed into another feature (e.g., list at the start or end of a chapter). The Preface also notes that there are foundational observations that apply to biological systems, and the material is often presented with explanations of experiments that helped to understand the concepts. This is helpful to show students that our knowledge was developed through experimentation, however, students may get overwhelmed by the details and miss the main concepts.
Accuracy rating: 5
The chapters I read seem to have accurate information. Many of the footnote links are to Wikipedia pages which are not always accurate. I noticed one footnote that stated “video with lost of misspelled words;” finding another video or resource could help decrease student confusion. The material is presented in the textbook with scientific objectivity.
Relevance/Longevity rating: 5
This book mainly includes historical experiments and well-accepted concepts in biology, so this information will likely not need to be updated. There are many web links in the footnotes and some within the text, and these often need to be updated.
Clarity rating: 1
This book has very high cognitive load. There are many long paragraphs, and the main point of each may not be clear to students. The text is packed with many scientific terms, and some are not defined until later sentences or paragraphs. Some of the scientific and non-scientific terminology is very advanced for an introductory textbook and would likely be more appropriate for an upper-level or graduate-level textbook. There are many non-scientific words that are not part of the daily vocabulary of students in an introductory course, and this would present a particular challenge to English-language learners. Some definitions are unclear; for example, cytologists are defined as “students of the cell.” Students at this level would need more help differentiating main concepts and key ideas from supporting details.
Consistency rating: 4
Based on the Table of Contents, and chapter sections and subsections appear to be consistent. The presentation of the material between chapters also seems to be consistent. Which terms and the way terms are defined within the text is not always consistent. For example, some terms are defined on first use, and others are defined later. Chapter one has the term stochastic in parentheses after random in one paragraph and after noisy in the next then refers to stochastic events, behaviors, and processes; this may confuse students unfamiliar with this term. In a later chapter, when noting that X-rays caused mutations, X-rays are defined but not mutations.
Modularity rating: 2
Although each chapter is broken down with subheadings, it may be difficult to assign parts of a chapter or only some chapters or to rearrange the order of the material. For example, historical experiments are presented in a timed sequence. The book is uses a lot of terminology that is not usually re-defined in later chapters. For example, chapter 7 on heredity uses terms such as chromosome, eukaryote, mutation, enzymes, catalysis, hydrophobic, monomer, hypomorphic, etc. To improve the modularly, terms would need to be redefined or easily accessible (e.g., a glossary or supplement).
Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 2
This book is like many others where concepts are built upon one another, and the chapters have a logical sequence of topics. Since the text includes many terms and concepts, students may focus on these and have trouble discerning the main points. This could be improved with clear section introductions and conclusions and features such as lists of key concepts or main ideas.
Interface rating: 4
I did not have any problems opening the pdf in browsers or downloading it. Reading it in Acrobat provided easier navigation. Since there were not titles or chapter numbers on each page, it was often difficult to know where I was within the text. The Preface refers to being able to read the text through the nota bene system, however, it was unclear how to access this. It also refers to beSocrative activities and provides a link, however, a login and password were required for access. The figures were small, and the text was difficult to read and sometimes fuzzy. Word clouds were often used, and the smaller words could not be read even after zooming. There were no figure numbers which would make it difficult to direct students to certain figures or separate them from the text. The figures could be improved by providing legends, especially for students without a lot of experience with graphs and scientific figures.
Grammatical Errors rating: 4
I did not notice any major grammatical errors. There were a few small typos in the text, for example “eon” instead of “one, missing spaces between words or sentences, or extra periods. These were easy for me to identify as simple typos, but they may create an additional challenge, especially for English-language learners (e.g., a student might think “andin” or “allelecan” are words they have not yet learned).
Cultural Relevance rating: 1
Chapter 1 uses ableist language by referring to a scientist as “mad” and includes an image and also does not replace the description or image with something more realistic. In the next paragraph, it is stated that intelligent design creationism is “extremely unlikely to be true” and “can be safely ignored” which might “turn off” students who hold these beliefs. One figure includes the word “bullshit” which might be offensive to some students, and the humor may not be understood by students who do not use this term as part of their culture.
To present how biological concepts were understood, the textbook often names researchers and describes their experiments, and all of the examples I read were white men (there is also a link to a video about Watson and Crick, however, there is controversy about his and Crick’s interactions with Rosalind Franklin, and James Watson has made racist remarks.)
There is an opportunity to use examples that can engage students and connect to their lives. For example, chapter 1 uses historical physics experiments to demonstrate the importance of the scientific process; using more recent, newsworthy, biological experiments with which students are familiar would help to engage them while teaching them some biological concepts. Using examples that are relevant to the populations of students we serve could also be helpful to engage students and connect their learning (for example, sickle-cell anemia as an example of a genetic disease linked to malaria, rather than skin color as many students believe). Chapter 7 uses lactose intolerance as an example, and there is an opportunity to discuss the co-evolution of genes and culture in Africa and Europe.
The book starts by focusing on scientific thinking and then the authors use descriptions of experiments throughout the book to demonstrate how concepts were worked out. The remainder of the text covers many general biology topics in a fairly typical manner. However, there are fewer pedagogical features (e.g., glossary, outcomes, summaries) than most traditional textbooks. I was not able to access the beSocratic activities so cannot comment on the supplements to the text. The Preface notes that students spend too much time learning vocabulary and use terms such as analyze, identify critical factors, make predictions, dissect critical factors, and the “Questions to think and ponder” test these skills, but the material is not presented in a way to help students develop these important skills. This book accurately presents the content, and instructors could supplement it to help students develop learning strategies to critically think about the material.
Reviewed by L.K. Tuominen, Community Faculty, Metropolitan State University, on 6/21/2017.
The text is intended for use as a two-semester introductory biology sequence. The authors address the nature of science and three main theories in
Comprehensiveness rating: 3 read less
The text is intended for use as a two-semester introductory biology sequence. The authors address the nature of science and three main theories in biology – physicochemical basis of life, cell theory, and evolution. (Although not directly noted in the authors’ statement, it also addresses the central dogma of genetics.) This focus on comprehensive explanatory theories makes the text scientifically elegant. This text also evidences an ongoing trend in introductory biology sequences in which the area of biology probably most relevant to human sustainability in the 21st century – ecology – falls by the wayside to be picked up later, sometimes only by that subset of biology majors focusing on organismal and/or environmental themes. The authors are honest about the lack of full coverage and note on the title page that the current version of the text is a draft. Based on its current length, the full textbook could probably be used in a one-semester introductory course on molecular and evolutionary themes in biology.
I found the authors’ advocacy for scientific elegance compelling, especially the decision to recognize the theoretical coherence of biology on the same terms that researchers have constructed it. The discussion of the nature of science is more comprehensive than I have seen in other texts at the introductory level. Where evolution intersects with ecology content, the latter is addressed to some extent, but it is never granted its own domain. For example, underlying genetic and evolutionary mechanisms for the generation and maintenance of biodiversity are presented, but the role of environment in biodiversity and how biodiversity is measured are not addressed. By contrast, the details of ecological topics such as population growth have been omitted, in favor of topics that may be more relevant to upper level courses (e.g., behavioral biology, quorum sensing, systems biology). Overall, I see this text as most useful for introductory courses in specialized biology majors that explicitly exclude ecology. For faculty who prefer a text that more adequately represents ecology as a subfield of biology, I would suggest one using a “core themes” approach, such as Campbell Biology or Integrating Concepts in Biology.
Accuracy rating: 3
The content accuracy varies. This is a problem for an introductory-level textbook, since students at this level are the most likely to take authors’ words at face value. As an extreme example, the authors claim that panspermia “assumes that advanced aliens brought (or left) life on Earth” in Chapter 2. A quick Wikipedia check reveals this to be an unnecessarily limited and distorted presentation of the topic. The underlying idea that panspermia does not directly address the question of biogenesis is clearly correct, but the misrepresentation of the idea of panspermia and the fact that the authors weight that portion of the topic more heavily in terms of word count risks introducing a misconception and/or derailing the underlying point. For a more subtle example, the discussion of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium does not seem to fully recognize the relationship between the equation and neutral theory, instead emphasizing the fact that the underlying assumptions of the equation are, in practice, never really met. By contrast, more foundational concepts in cell and molecular biology, such as membrane function or the relationships among genes, alleles, and mutations, are addressed accurately.
Relevance/Longevity rating: 4
The authors are taking on the challenge of “teaching in the midst of a scientific revolution,” presenting an array of conventional topics in introductory biology through an alternative organization: more deeply integrating genetics with evolution, and including topics that now have enough evidence to support a textbook treatment (e.g., genome dynamics, origins of multicellularity). The current draft does not have longevity simply because it is, as stated by the authors on the title page, a draft. However, it is already evident that a final draft of the text has strong potential for helping to further the ongoing conversation about how to teach to the paradigm in process as a result of the genomic revolution. That later draft is likely to have good longevity.
The text uses extensive footnotes, many of which refer to internet-based articles and resources; to improve the text’s longevity, it may be helpful to use permanent object identifiers or print references as alternatives to direct URLs.
Clarity rating: 4
The prose is generally conversational, but technical, in tone, and the authors’ use of humor prevents the text from becoming too dry. I imagine that some of my previous students would need to put in extra reading time to fully grasp some of the denser technical sections, as many novices must put in effort to develop their understanding of terminology at the introductory level. Well-prepared students are more likely to be able to succeed with this text.
One other feature that would aid the clarity of this text greatly is to develop computer-generated images with captions and to increase the size of most figures. The hand-drawn figures present in several sections can be difficult to read, and many other figures are too small to easily interpret. Especially in discussions of phylogenetic trees, additional figures to show (rather than only tell) how to interpret such diagrams would be beneficial. “Tree thinking” is known to be a challenge area for student understanding, and providing multiple modes of instruction may help students grasp the topic more easily.
Consistency rating: 4
The text is generally consistent, although the organization of the text produces some redundancy (see more in “Organization/Structure/Flow”). As previously mentioned, the formatting of images varies in terms of size, quality, and captioning. The formatting of footnotes also shows some variation. The text might benefit from supplying an index and set of works referenced at the end, which could allow for a more consistent and comprehensive approach to citing items in the footnotes.
Modularity rating: 5
The table of contents call out each chapter as well as two levels of subheadings in all of the longer chapters. Individual chapters allow for easy reorganization of course content. As described in Organization/Structure/Flow, some instructors may wish to rearrange the text to place the chapters on evolution after those on genetics. The subheadings allow for useful break-points to divide a topic across multiple days or weeks. Furthermore, many subsections are concluded with a brief set of “Questions to Answer” and “Questions to Ponder.” This provides useful out-of-class activities to help students take a “review break” from their reading while more actively building their understanding.
Organization/Structure/Flow rating: 3
The organization of introductory biology topics in a comprehensive format is a challenging task for any author. Biology as a field tends to resist neat conceptualizations by scale hierarchies or a process orientation, as other features disrupt these conceptualizations (e.g., evolution in scale hierarchies, systematics in process orientation). The “nature of science” introductory chapter is a common approach for many introductory textbooks and works quite well here. The text proceeds with three chapters related to cell theory, biogenesis, and evolution, which together create a coherent unit. Chapters 5-8 form a second coherent unit, moving from introductory biochemistry through membranes, energy metabolism, and the central dogma of genetics. This presentation is essentially in the reverse order from many other texts, and this leads to a disjointed feel in some parts of the first “unit” as the authors work to provide the underlying genetic context for evolutionary processes (e.g., genes, alleles, types of mutations), and as the organismal focus of Chapter 4 shifts abruptly to the molecular scale in Chapter 5. For comparison, The Tangled Bank (Zimmer 2009) also recently explored new ways of “leading with evolution” in an introductory level textbook. While Zimmer's text has a more coherent organization overall, it appeared to be designed for a one semester course and excluded many common introductory biochemistry and cellular biology topics presented in the present text.
Chapters 10-14 all have potential relevance in an introductory level course, especially Chapter 11, which addresses cellular level processes in meiosis and sexual reproduction. At this time, these last four chapters have a “work in progress” feel and will likely be more complete in a later draft.
Interface rating: 4
In the PDF format, many of the images and diagrams seem to be tightly worked into the text in order to save space. Most do not have any title or explanatory text. It would likely be helpful to give more space to the images and diagrams that are most important to demonstrating core principles, and to give them clear titles and/or headings to help students understand their intended purpose. Images and diagrams that act more as examples could be treated more incidentally.
Grammatical Errors rating: 2
Errors in spelling and grammar regularly arise throughout the text. In some cases these errors are severe enough to interfere with the reader’s understanding, particularly if the reader is also an English language learner. Since the authors state that this is a draft in progress, this is to be expected. A careful review by a professional science editor would be helpful once the final draft is ready for review.
Cultural Relevance rating: 4
The introductory heading “A Biofundamentalist Approach” is one that needs clarifying and/or tempering. While someone passingly familiar with scientism is able to interpret the intended meaning, it would likely be unclear to a novice whether that phrasing is intended to advocate for, speak out against, or merely highlight the “biofundamentalist” approach. The authors’ approach of addressing scientism alongside pseudoscience is one I believe to be a best practice in discussing the nature of science. Clarity is needed when this is done, since scientism typically receives less attention and some science educators may be unfamiliar with the concept. Due to its similarity to sectarian descriptions such as “Christian fundamentalist,” the use of the term “biofundamentalist” could also potentially raise negative prejudices from those who are highly religious as well as those who are highly atheist.
The description of trans-scientific issues provides a brief but well-balanced discussion of the complex issues related to gender autonomy, human population growth, and industrialization. The use of the phrase “female autonomy” instead of “women’s autonomy” in this discussion may be offensive to some audiences.
In the discussion of species, the mention of “populations, races, and subspecies” shows up in a few places, but little context is provided to distinguish among these. The authors have an important opportunity to distinguish between the use of “race” as a biological term and “race” as a social construction, and this could be achieved either in this section or in the unfinished chapter on human genetics. See the 2015 article by B.M. Donovan in Science Education for more on the need to address this challenge.
This was a difficult text to review, as it has been made publicly available while in draft form. Most of the numerical scores I have given here are influenced by the fact that the draft is incomplete and unpolished. I look forward to seeing the final version of this text in the future!