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Bio 103 vs. the Big Fat Textbook

Simone Biow's picture
Campbell Reece defined Biology as “the scientific study of life” in the Seventh Edition of his textbook Biology (1). Needless to say, this statement is vague and written as a conclusive fact. It is difficult to question its veracity or scientific merit because it’s not really saying too much in the first place. Instead, Professor Grobstein began his course by similarly suggesting that Biology is the “science of life,” but he then presented a series of additional questions:
• What is science? Why can't it "get it right"?
• What is life? Can one get it "right"?
• Does science = life? (2)

From the start, Grobstein involved his students in the discussion and made them think. Yes, think about science, not just memorize it and move on. He encouraged us all to actively participate in and ask questions about the study of Biology. He acknowledged the fact that much of science is “theory” and not “fact” and that there still exist hundreds of questions that neither he nor anyone else could answer. According to Grobstein, science is simply a series of hypotheses that have not been disproved. On the other hand, Reece wrote in absolutes. It is as if he felt obligated to answer all of the questions about Biology, and therefore life. Grobstein’s lectures did not attempt to account for the unknown, but did often acknowledge it. Ultimately, Grobstein and Reece’s didactic approaches to Biology differed on three particularly interesting subjects: their definitions of life, their approaches to diversity and evolution, and their attitude towards the human brain.

Reece and Grobstein seemed to both agree that “the phenomenon we call life defies a simple, one-sentence definition…We recognize life by what living things do ”(3). Reece went on to specify that the fundamental properties that characterize life are:

• Order (In other words, a “highly ordered structure…characterizes life.”)
• Evolutionary Adaptation
• Response to the Environment
• Regulation (The homeostatic “regulation of blood flow through the blood vessels of [an organism] helps maintain a constant body temperature by adjusting heat exchange with surrounding air,” for instance.)
• Energy Processing (food, sunlight absorption, energy storage, etc.)
• Growth and Development (The fact that “inherited information carried by genes controls the pattern of growth and development of organisms.”)
• Reproduction (4)

Although Reece’s definition is easy to understand, it still does not account for why a toddler is capable of identifying that an organism is alive. Few of those qualifiers can really be observed. They are too specific and at the same time vague and ill-defined. Professor Grobstein’s definition was more universal and concise.
He asserted that living organisms are:

• Highly Improbably Assemblies
• Bounded
• Energy Dependent
• Semi-homeostatic
• Semi-Autonomous
• Able to reproduce with Variation (5)

This definition is much more applicable to every day observations. The book’s approach was abstruse and sententious, while Professor Grobstein says it as it is. In fact, when he proposed that the students list the tenets of life, he found that, like the book, we were too specific in our suggestions. He said that we were “thinking like college students.” In a sense, he made us question the manner in which we had been taught about science prior to taking this course. In addition, he made science accessible and comprehensible. He did not make it sound more difficult than it was, nor did he oversimplify.

A discussion of life inevitably leads to an examination of diversity; and diversity cannot be accounted for without evolution. From the start, Professor Grobstein remarked that one must think of diversity and of evolution in terms of both temporal and spatial scales. For instance, he inquired: “at what scales do improbable assemblies exist and how do they relate to one another?” (6) In answering the question, he opened our eyes to the fact that the study of diversity on this planet, and anywhere in the universe for that manner, is a study that must begin from the Big Bang. In fact, regardless of how many hundreds of light years away they are, even the Main sequence stars that fuse the essential atoms and chemicals of which life is composed account for diversity on earth. Through cataclysmic explosions, these stars spread atoms throughout the rest of the universe. As Grobstein said, “the Earth could not exist without these stars. As we progress to studies of smaller Biological scales, we find that Earth’s organisms are composed of atoms which are composed of chemicals that also appear in the chemical make up of the planets, stars, and galaxies” (7). He also made us realize that humans and other mammals would not have existed if it had not been for a meteor collision in the Yucatan Peninsula and caused about 80% of the existing species of animals on Earth (especially Dinosaurs) to go extinct. Up until that point, I hadn’t really thought of dinosaurs going extinct and apes beginning to emerge as a cause and effect, but it made perfect sense. Grobstein connected the dots, one concept flowed into another and science became a history of cause and effect. Reece just tossed the facts at us and there didn’t seem to be any particular order or relevance to the sequence in which his observations were presented. So, as I was saying, Grobstein was having us think about life in terms of enormous spans of space and time. He asserted that “time is an essential descriptor of life” and that various levels of diversity and order exist because they have developed over time. In addition, there are different rates of evolutionary change. There are the sudden (dinosaur extinction) or gradual (finch beaks) processes that occur and whether they are a result of reproduction with variation or environmental circumstances, these alterations must also be measured in time (8). On the other hand, the book understated the importance of looking at Biology through both temporal and spatial perspectives. Reece wrote that “the study of life extends from the microscopic scale of the molecules and cells that make up organisms to the global scale of the entire living planet. We can divide this enormous range into levels of biological organization” (9). In other words, Reece only thinks on a global and not a universal scale. Additionally, he is constantly obsessed with categorizing diversity into “levels of biological organization,” whereas Grobstein motivated us to question systems of classification from the start of the class. Through labs such as Darwin’s Voyage Revisited and by daring us to attempt to classify species in a series of photos Grobstein made us realize that no one had the same definition for how to classify organisms. Reece states that “diversity is a hallmark of life. Biologists have so far identified and named about 1.8 million species…There seems to be a human tendency to group diverse items according to similarities” (10). Again, the book’s oversimplification in its approach to biology is frustrating. It refuses to acknowledge the gaps and holes in certain systems of classification. He focuses on the minutiae of factors that create diversity, but doesn’t see this all on a larger scale.

A discussion that was particularly unique to Biology 103 was the difference between animate and inanimate and conscious organisms, or the difference between autonomy and homeostasis. Professor Grobstein took particular interest in the function of the brain. In the textbook, Reece writes that:

The ability to sense and react originated billions of years ago with prokaryotes that could detect changes in their environment and respond in ways that enhanced their survival and reproductive success—for example, locating food sources by chemotaxis. Later, modification of this simple process provided multicellular organisms with a mechanism for communication between cells of the body. By the time of the Cambrian explosion more than 500 million years ago, systems of neurons that allowed animals to sense and move rapidly had evolved in essentially their present-day forms. (11)

Reece provides a very interesting insight into the evolution of the nervous system. The emergence of neurons allowed animals to become increasingly more autonomous and self-reliant. In addition, the development of more complicated brains also generated the leap between animate and inanimate organisms. As it turns out, the “limbic system is central to some of the behaviours—such as extended nurturing of infants and emotional bonding to other individuals—that distinguish mammals from most reptiles and amphibians" (12). Additionally, the neocortex is a crucial structural variant that distinguishes the brain levels of organisms. I found it interesting that:

The neocortex forms the outermost part of the mammalian cerebrum, consisting of six parallel layers of neurons running tangential to the brain surface. Whereas the neocortex of a rat is relatively smooth, the human neocortex is highly convoluted. The convolutions allow the neocortex to have a large surface area and still fit inside the skull: although less than 5mm thick, the human neocortex has a surface area of about 0.5^2 and accounts for about 80% of total brain mass. (13)

These anatomical details seem to help account for the ‘conscious’ level of thought that humans experience when compared with the levels of thought that other animate organisms display. Furthermore, Reece discussed that:

The major increase in the size of the neocortex that occurred during mammalian evolution was mostly an expansion of the association areas that integrate higher cognitive functions and make more complex behavior and learning possible. Whereas a rat’s neocortex is occupied mainly by primary sensory areas, the human neocortex consists largely of association areas.” (14)

Reece goes on to distinguish that “humans have a much larger brain than other hominoids and are capable of language, symbolic thought, and the manufacture and use of complex tools” (15). Additionally, the emergence of symbolic thought may have coincided with the development of “full-blown human language…the human capacity for language involves many regions of the brain, and it’s almost certain that many other genes are essential for language” (16). However, Reece hesitates to go on elucidating the functions of the human brain. He writes that “consciousness is both broad—encompassing our awareness of ourselves and of our own experiences—and subjective” (17). I find that this information interestingly complements Professor Grobstein’s more abstract approach to human consciousness. It gives us a more solid scientific platform from which we can make observations about our own brains. Professor Grobstein’s lectures provided a conclusion to Reece’s thoughts that he could not make himself. For instance, his analogy that the “self is to the brain as culture is to the individual” makes sense only for humans and can be explained through the process of human evolution that distinguishes us from other mammals (18). One’s self (internal experience, including identity, that is processed in the brain) can be independent of the rest of one’s body and is capable of changing or controlling the rest of the body (19). Again, this structural complexity is the result of evolutionary adaptations and can be best explained in that sense. Grobstein sees that “internal experience is a ‘story.’” It is a story that:

• Need not correspond to what is "out there"
• May be one of many possible resolutions of ambiguous input
• Reflects distinctive "personal" organization of nervous system as well as inputs/other stories (20)

Our internal processing of experiences affects our entire view of the world and the way in which we react in it. Humans are unique because they have “consciousness,” free will, the ability to alter themselves. Professor Grobstein accounts for human complexity in terms of both its effect on our internal selves and how it manifests itself in our environment. However, Reece’s conclusive observations of the complexity of the human species serve merely to compare ourselves to other species and to place ourselves in a phylogenic context, rather than to explore the fascinating effects of this unique trait that, as far as we know, only we seem to possess. Reece writes that “diversity is the product of branching phylogeny, not ladderlike “progress,” however we chose to measure it…The ubiquitous presence of diverse prokaryotes throughout the biosphere today is a reminder of the enduring ability of these relatively simple organisms to keep up with the times through adaptive evolution. Biology exalts life’s diversity, past and present” (21). Again, his diction is abstruse and his conclusion vague as what he really means to say is that varying levels of complexity (or diversity) exists among species because we all evolved interdependently and because a new adaptation does not automatically replace an old system. New adaptations occur as responses to the environment; evolution is not attempting to create a more “perfect” or complex organism.

Professor Grobstein spoke accessible English. Instead, the book used a series of big words in sequences that once you had time to look them up in a dictionary, you couldn’t even remember what you were reading in the first place. Words such as catastrophism, cladistics, and protobionts, among many others, were not in the Oxford English Dictionary and their definitions had to be inferred from the contexts they were in (22). Furthermore, wordy titles like “Morphological and Molecular Homologies” intimidated me before I even began to try to read what it was discussing (23). Often, I understood the concept, but Reece’s sententious phrasing made it difficult to stay focused. As I did throughout this essay, I found myself having to clarify what Reece was saying into a few cogent sentences. In the process, I discovered that there were easier ways of expressing scientific concepts and that Biology really wasn’t so hard at all. Reece places Biology at a distance and exalts it to the point of making it seem like a difficult science. Professor Grobstein’s lectures made me love Biology and see how it affects me on an every day basis. It was no longer an abstract science that I only read about in books, but he showed that biology was the science of life, the science of my life.


(1) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 2.

(2) Professor Grobstein’s Discussion Notes for Biology 103. Fall 2006. (4 Sept. 2006) </biology/b103/f06/notes.html>

(3) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 2.

(4) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 3.

(5) Professor Grobstein’s Discussion Notes for Biology 103. Fall 2006. (11 Sept.) </biology/b103/f06/notes.html>

(6) Professor Grobstein’s Discussion Notes for Biology 103. Fall 2006. (18 Sept.) </biology/b103/f06/notes.html>

(7) Professor Grobstein’s Discussion Notes for Biology 103. Fall 2006. (18 Sept.) </biology/b103/f06/notes.html>

(8) Professor Grobstein’s Discussion Notes for Biology 103. Fall 2006. (25 Sept.) </biology/b103/f06/notes.html>

(9) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 2.

(10) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 12.

(11) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 1011.

(12) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 1034.

(13) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 1031.

(14) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 1032.

(15) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 701.

(16) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 707.

(17) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 1036.

(18) Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?

(19) Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?

(20) Science as Exploration/Story Telling and The Brain as a Scientist/Explorer/Story Teller </reflections/brained/delvalfriendsoct06/page3b.html>

(21) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg. 707.

(22) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pp. 440, 498, 515.

(23) Reece, Campbelle. Biology (Seventh Edition). Boston: Benjamin Cummings, 2005, pg.492.


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