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Science: Dogma or Dynamism?

Sarah Mellors's picture

As a supplement to this biology course, I also read a biology textbook, Biology: Discovering Life, by Joseph Levine and Kenneth Miller.  This is an older book I found in the science library, published about 15 years ago.  At first glance, I found the detailed charts and figures and complex terminology to be intimidating and deterring.  I assumed it was just another traditional science textbook where everything is delineated for the reader to memorize with no room for questioning and no pressure to think “outside the box”.  While the majority of the book is conventional, upon closer examination, one important point the book espouses really resonated with the foundations of this class.  Reading this book exposed me to a much different style of teaching.  In my critique of the book, I will focus on a subject I found very enlightening – a fundamental part of this unique science course – our understanding of biology as a dynamic process.

The first chapter of the book, “Understanding Life: Our Responsibility” offers two somewhat contradictory views on science, the first of which falls closely in line with the alternative style of teaching used in our class. The book asserts that “science is neither dogma nor an assemblage of immutable facts…it is an ongoing process of observing the world around us, forming ideas about how that world operates, conducting tests of those ideas, and continually revising our conclusions” (8).  I really appreciate the emphasis on science as a perpetually changing way of thinking and looking at the world, where theories are tested and retested and modified.  This attitude toward science gives students motivation to keep exploring and questioning, even if it means re-examining a theory most people hold to be true.  It means that every single person can have an impact on science.  This concept is the core of our basic biology course; as a class we were encouraged to keep questioning, making observations, and rewriting our “story” to accommodate these new observations.  As a student, I find this attitude to be energizing and encouraging because it means that I too can shape the course of scientific study. 

Unfortunately, the book is self-contradictory; 99% of the book presents a different view on science.  It primarily consists of lists of facts to memorize and explanations of why these statements are true.  The general tone of the book is that of a dogmatic text.  For a student wishing to learn science through sheer memorization, this style of teaching has its benefits because little analysis is involved.  On a positive note, the detail to which this textbook goes into is a helpful way of showing students what thought processes scientists have already undergone.  However, I personally find this style of teaching to be oppressive because it discourages independent thought and dissidence.  It perpetuates the view that students can have no impact since so many scientific “truths” have already been exposed.

For my purposes, I think the unconventional style of teaching used in this class is ideal.  If I were pre-med maybe I would want to know the book’s terms and diagrams by heart since they seem to be working well for doctors now, but as a student who has been turned off to science in the past, I think addressing science as a dynamic process is liberating.  This semester we were able to cover the basic concepts of biology while still making it exciting because every conclusion we came to was our own.  Examining basic questions such as “What is life?” and “Is the earth alive?” sparked heated debate, but in a traditional textbook the so-called answers to these questions would be laid out for the reader.  Examining science from the perspective used in this class has fundamentally changed my way of thinking.  Although this textbook is a useful tool for understanding what we currently think we know about science, taking this course has taught me to take everything with a grain of salt.




Levine, Joseph S. and Kenneth R. Miller.  Biology: Discovering Life. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1991.