What is life? New Biology Textbook

My old friend, colleague, suaboya, and educator extraordinaire, Jay Phelan has written what many believe will be the next Campbell. The name of the book is What Is Life?. There are two versions: one regular, and one with extra physiology. And both are based firmly on and integrated thoroughly with excellent evolutionary biology.


The text is fully modernized, using inquiry based learning (called “Intriguing Questions” or “Red Q” Questions. For instance, “Why doesn’t natural selection lead to the prodution of perfect organisms?”, “Why is it easier to remember gossip than physics equations?” and “Do flowers with both male and female structures fertilize themselves?”

The art and photos in this text are outstanding and, above all, not misleading or in any way inaccurate. This is an important features. So often, the simplification of a concept to the form of a graphic removes key elements which are replaced by the human eye (or sometimes the actual graphic artist) with something that is simply wrong. Phelan has done an excellent job in making sure that this does not happen in this text. And, the visuals are simply very, very well done.

A bit of real life biology is included with every chapter, allowing students to take something out of the classroom other than a fuzzy feeling in their heads and a lot of tired brain cells. This, again, is an inquiry based approach. For example, what happens, physiologically, when you mix aspirin and alcohol? And, what would you learn (about physiology) from this?


One of the many things I like about this book is that Jay starts out with a discussion of pseudoscience and misconceptions, and shows how critical thinking and application of the scientific method are needed to cut through the crap that the students encounter all the time in their daily lives. That, of course, is one of the main reasons to make everybody take science classes. Having it explicitly stated is not a bad idea.

What is Life is written for intro College or High School AP, and anyone setting up a new course at this time should seriously consider it. Campbell is nice, but Phelan is the next textbook.

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26 thoughts on “What is life? New Biology Textbook

  1. Looks like an outstanding textbook. And the graphics are perfect. I’d love to see this author do a middle level text too. And the photosynthesis diagram above sure beats the diagram I used to put on the chalkboard. Right, chalkboard, as in black slate, write on with dusty diatomaceous chalk. I’m retired, and sort of old.

  2. The photosynthesis diagram incorrectly suggests that the oxygen released by photosynthesis comes from carbon dioxide. Not so, it comes from water. If that is a representative example of the graphics, I am not impressed.

  3. Jim:

    You say in your comment that the diagram “incorrectly suggests” that the oxygen released during photosynthesis comes from carbon dioxide.

    As you can see, the path from the water absorbed from the ground, goes into the yellow box, and from that an arrow shows oxygen added to the atmosphere. Illustrating that the oxygen has come from water and not from carbon dioxide.

    So what the diagram shows, and what the text below it describes is:

    ..Light energy is captured and temporarily stored in energy-storage molecules. During this process, water molecules split and produce oxygen.

    Elsewhere the book states that: “a convenient and life-sustaining by-product of splitting of water in photosynthesis is the oxygen that is released from the cell.”

  4. I see the lower boxes as giving the impression that the oxygen comes from CO2 because the CO2 molecule is diagrammed, as is the O2 molecule, but water is shown as a droplet. Oxygen molecules are shown in CO2 and in O2 but not in water.

  5. Jim: Water is made of oxygen and hydrogen. This is covered in the text. However, while the diagram is NOT INCORRECT it might be a good idea to include a water molecule instead of a water droplet.

    Of course, not all the water comes from the ground, some is introduced into the system by absorption by leaves, but that is also left out. Fortunately!

  6. I need this book! I homeschool my children and find it nearly impossible to find really good science textbooks. Even books intended for public school make mention of “Intelligent Design”, which makes me furious.

  7. ROFLMAO on these comments.

    The comments are, indeed, great, but …. You are only looking at one diagram. In the book, when sugars (which are at the molecular level, often hexagons) are introduced, a green hexagon thingie is shown to the students next to the words “This green hexagon will be used to represent sugars throughout the book” (or words to that effect). This diagram is “Photosynthesis, the big picture” and is the first of something like a dozen diagrams, and of course there is text. This diagram does not show the O coming from the wrong place at all, and the text and other diagrams make it very clear how every step of photosynthesis works, including special mention related to some of the usual fallacies (like where the different elements come from and where they go.)

    I sat across the table from the author of this book for years working on biology handouts, graphics, slides, etc. Jay had very few friends because he was always pointing out stupid little details about what everyone else had wrong on their charts, graphs, diagrams, tables, and text. (And test questions. The test quesitons! Don’t get me started. AIEEEEE!!!)

    People tried to kill him several times, and almost every day the air was let out of his tires. And he didn’t even have a car! To protect himself, Jay hired a body guard named Terry. Jay would change his appearance often, even going so far as to have several different looking pairs of sunglasses at any given time. All this because he drove everyone nuts with his pedantry and precision.

    But at least, we always got the teaching material exactly correct. Or almost always. But then we would fix it.

    It is quite possible that Jay goofed up in a few places in his book. But as a rule, if you look at one of his diagrams and you see what you think is a mistake, chances are you have it wrong, not Jay. Just sayin’


  8. Fantastic book! So many students are convinced that science is boring and esoteric. By learning about real-life examples like Airborne and alcohol consumption students can see that science is accessible and relevant to their lives. Kudos!

  9. …based firmly on and integrated thoroughly with excellent evolutionary biology.

    So, we won’t be seein’ this in any Texas AP high school classes, right?

    /obvious joke

  10. I’m curious about the portrayal of the CO2 molecule. Though O is the heavier elements, illustrations elsewhere show the Os as smaller, whereas the one above shows the Os as larger. Is there an accepted correct version? If showing O as smaller is standard, then why? (I have a genuine need to draw a CO2 molecule soon, so I welcome an opinion.)

  11. John, I’ve been thinking about your question all evening off and on, and I’m not sure. The two atoms should not be of too different a size (compared to either one next to lead or helium, for instance). O is often O2 … maybe that’s influencing one of the versions of diagrams you’ve seen.

  12. WIL is a contemporary, high-energy book with GREAT illustrations. It is a fresh start, not the revision of a revision of a revision, as we see so often. This will be the second year that I have used Jay’s text for my advanced HS student, though I’m “upgrading” to the new version that includes Physiology (plants and animals). Having also taught AP Bio with Campbell, mentioned above, this would be a very appropriate choice for that, as well. What is refreshing to both me and my students, is that Jay’s narrative is engaging, coherent, and always keeps the interests of the reader in mind. I have also found Jay’s organization VERY classroom friendly. Chapters and sub-chapters are nicely divided in ways that make them easy to assign or to skip (reality check; most of us won’t be able to do all 980+pgs). Another specific feature that has helped my teaching is the thorough integration of evolution into most chapters. I have used at least a dozen textbooks over the years, and this is by far the best; complex, yet not overwhelming; clear and engaging; accurate and filled with current topics of interest.

  13. Greg, thanks for considering my question on the portrayal of CO2 molecules. A search of images on google will reveal numerous images using both O being larger and O being smaller. My impression is that O being smaller is more common and is the way it’s shown on wikipedia. At this point, the best I can try to do is not introduce a third way of representing CO2. 🙂


  14. Speaking of the “big picture” …. In my biochemistry textbook I define photosynthesis as the process that converts light energy into synthesis of chemical energy in the form of ATP molecules (and NADPH).

    This definition applies to all species, including those that don’t use water as a source of electrons and don’t release oxygen as a by-product. What it means is that my students will get a big picture view of photosynthesis covering bacteria, single-cell eukaryotes, and plants. One they’ve understood the basics, we can concentrate on describing more specialized versions of photosynthesis, including the one that occurs in plants.

    I explain that many species can fix carbon. The process that often occurs is called the Calvin cycle and it’s the one that is most often mixed in with photosynthesis in introductory textbooks. That’s because we usually think of big plants when we think of photosynthesis and those big plants need lots of structural carbohydrate (e.g. cellulose). This old, out-of-date, view of photosynthesis comes from a time when bacteria and algae got short shrift in school.

    In most other species, the ATP generated by photosynthesis is used for all kinds of things like protein synthesis, nucleic acid synthesis, and fatty acid synthesis. When you look at the big picture, you realize that the captured light energy isn’t just used to make carbohydrates. This is especially true in bacteria and algaeâ??species that don’t contain a lot of stored carbohydrates. There is no direct linkage between photosynthesis, as I define it, and the synthesis of carbohydrate.

    And oxygen production is not a necessary part of photosynthesis.

    That’s what I mean by the “big picture.”

    In fairness, my (correct) viewpoint is a minority one. Almost all textbooks and websites describe photosynthesis as a process that converts light energy into sugars. If that’s the “big picture” then where do plants get the energy to make everything else? Is it by breaking down sugar as soon as it’s made?

  15. I recall using one introductory freshman university level text which discussed photosynthesis I and photosynthesis II. It is again the problem of how to simplify without lying too much. One of my geology professors claimed that the first year of geology education was lying to the student, and the next three years consisted of trying to convince the students they had been lied to. Some truth in that!

    As a curious question, how much of the history of photosynthesis research should be covered? Should students be told about the experiment which showed that the O2 comes from oxygen and not from CO2, for example?

  16. Googled around on size of atoms and gave up. I vaguely recall an illustration in some text of a water molecule as a “Mickey Mouse head” With the sizes if the H and O atoms given, as well as the angle between the position of the two H atoms.

  17. Jim Thomerson says,

    It is again the problem of how to simplify without lying too much.

    Exactly. My solution is to avoid lying whenever possible. In this case, it might be appropriate to tell students that we are going to describe the traditional view of photosynthesis in flowering plants. You could mention that later on they will learn about different versions of photosynthesis in other species, such as bacteria and algae.

    The problem with that version of teaching is that is misses several opportunities to really educate students. We all know that students enter the classroomâ??or open a textbookâ??with certain biases. One of the best ways to teach critical thinking is to confront those biases and challenge students to think of other possibilities. If we continue to cater our education goals to the pre-conceived notions that students already have then we aren’t really doing our job as teachers.

    The fact that Earth’s atmosphere contains oxygen is due to bacteria, not plants. Even today, 30% of the oxygen is produced by bacteria. What’s wrong with telling students about this? And what’s wrong with explaining that the “synthesis” part of photosynthesis is production of ATP and NADPH then going on the explain that those “energy” molecules can be used to make proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates, and lipids? Wouldn’t than contribute to changing students’ perspectives about life? Isn’t that the goal of education?

  18. In introductory courses, which go from Mendel to molecular biology, I stressed to students that the definition of a gene will change throughout the course. So be ready to abandon the old and learn the new. I think using a historical approach, which illustrates how understanding changes with new evidence, is an important element in communicating the nature of science.

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