Life from asexual plants to current celebs

Asking About Life. Second edition - Biology - Discover Biology. First edition - Biology. Seventh Edition
March 2, 2001

The availability of informative and truly biological textbooks has increased considerably in recent years. The publication of these four texts continues that trend. Each sets out to consider all aspects of plant and animal biology but with varying emphases and levels of success, particularly in the way in that the knowledge of the reader is tested and further reading encouraged.

As sources of information, all successfully address the needs of A-level students through to first-year undergraduates, not only for the traditional aspects of biological sciences but also for contemporary aspects. As befits the visual science they describe, each is well illustrated with clear, coloured diagrams and photographs that complement the text.

Biology by Sylvia S. Mader has become a standard textbook. Purely descriptive text is minimised in this seventh edition, where there is an emphasis on functional processes, which, wherever possible, are presented in a comparative way, including the components on ecological topics.

The book is organised into seven parts, each of which is divided into chapters that deal in depth with component aspects of a topic. However, subject coverage is not uniform. Consideration of some botanical topics, particularly higher plant growth physiology, appears superficial in comparison with the impressive coverage given to animal and human physiology.

One of this edition's main strengths is that it is very much up to date on aspects of molecular biology and related topics. Discussions on contemporary aspects of genetic manipulation and cloning of organisms are included in this part but are also addressed contextually elsewhere as appropriate; for example, genetic modification of Arabidopsis is considered in the section covering asexual reproduction in higher plants.

Welcome inclusions are the focus pages where a topic is put into its broader and, in some cases, controversial context. Consideration is given to social and medical as well as scientific aspects, for example drug abuse is discussed in the chapter devoted to neurobiology. The chapters end with summaries, reviews, self-test exercises and bioethical consideration sections as well as a list of web addresses; these are supplemented with extensive reading lists and two CD-Roms.

The format and topic coverage in Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life , which is also an established work on biology in its ninth edition, are strikingly comparable. The subject areas are again grouped into seven subdivided sections, most with focus sections covering similar topics in a similar way.

Welcome additions are key concept panels at the start of each chapter, which provide effective summaries of the subject matter to follow. Emphasis within physiology is again on animal and human aspects, which are covered clearly and comprehensively. However, while the section on plant-growth physiology is superficial -the subject being covered in 15 pages -that on photosynthesis is particularly good.

The end-of-section self-assessments test a range of skills and are based on a mixture of "fill in the missing word" statements, through review questions to the more thought-provoking critical-thinking exercises. In addition, the extensive sections on genetics are concluded with problems that test a deeper appreciation and application of knowledge, rather than factual recall. The book is an effective teaching aid. This is tempered by the limited lists of recommended reading but enhanced by the provision of an interactive CD-Rom. The use of photographs of contemporary celebrities, alongside established participants in the science, to illustrate points could result in the work looking dated after a short period of time.

The second edition of Asking About Life is the least lavishly illustrated of the quartet and reliance is more on diagrams than on photographs. This said, the text is very descriptive and easy to follow, and the extensive highlighting in bold print of key terms and phrases focuses the attention of the reader. Topic boxes are again included but are limited more to strict scientific considerations than to discussion of the topic in a wider context.

Each chapter starts with a summary of its key concepts and ends with a reiteration of the key terms encountered, thus aiding ongoing learning - necessary since the self-assessment sections are limited. Reference is made to specific websites that contain supplementary information supplied by the publishers; which is of benefit to the teacher and to the student.

Within the text, a clearer balance is achieved between botanical and zoological specialist topics, in particular in the physiology chapters. This attractive book boasts extensive and comprehensive accounts of traditional and contemporary genetics that make it a valuable text.

Discover Biology is the newcomer of these four books, but its approach is initially reminiscent of considerations made in older biological texts.

The first of six "units" of subject matter involve a survey of living organisms and biodiversity, in advance of more contemporary molecular and biochemical topics, tending to disguise the fact that this is an up-to-date and forceful text. Its sharpness and to-the-point approach is commensurate with the views expressed by the authors that students learn best from short, well-focused chapters.

The authors have made a serious attempt to produce an integrated biological text, not only in subject areas such as genetics and ecology that lend themselves to this, but also in the general animal and plant-biology sections such as nutrition.

The general pattern of including self-assessment exercises at the end of each chapter is followed. Although these are somewhat limited, they are supplemented by a clear bullet-pointed summary and a good suggested reading section at the end of the book.

Further discussion is encouraged by the novel and welcome inclusion of press cuttings on broader selective topics with an invitation to evaluate these in a scientific context through a series of extended questions. The overall impression is of a book packed with facts delivered in a clear and concise fashion. In comparison with the other books, there is slightly less depth of coverage in a few topics, but this does not detract greatly from its value.

All four books have much to commend them, being bright, informative and inviting. To enhance their material, each has reference to supplementary teaching and learning aids that are available from a variety of sources, many of which can be accessed via the web. While the texts are designed for serious students of biology, they are also attractive sources of information for anyone with a general interest in the subject.

Alan Pearson is principal, College of St Hild and St Bede, University of Durham.

Asking About Life. Second edition

Author - Allan J. Tobin and Jennie Dusheck
ISBN - 0 03 0044 8
Publisher - Harcourt
Price - £.95
Pages - 928

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