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1 February 2006 A GENEALOGY OF LIFE ON EARTH
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Five Kingdoms: A Multimedia Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth. Version 2.0. Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz. Springer, New York, 2003. $59.95 (ISBN 3540408665 CD–ROM).

In many ways, the Five Kingdoms multimedia CD–ROM, authored by Lynn Margulis and Karlene V. Schwartz, is a natural evolution from the text version. Margulis and Schwartz are widely recognized for their contributions to taxonomy through the book Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, a volume that has graced biologists' shelves for years and is currently in its third edition. Margulis, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Geo-sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, is renowned for her work in cell biology and evolution, and her coauthor, Schwartz, is also a recognized biologist at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

In the print version, Five Kingdoms is a genealogy of life on earth, providing diagrams, illustrations, and scholarly text, all organized precisely into the broadest, most inclusive taxonomic classifications: kingdom and phylum. As technology has changed the way we build our family photo albums—from unwieldy books with limited space to CDs with seemingly unlimited photo storage capacity—so, too, has it changed Five Kingdoms. The CD reduces bulk (not that the original text was bulky) and offers the reader the chance to engage with a wider spectrum of images and information in a more interactive format. However, the transition from print text to CD brings both benefits and limitations.

The Five Kingdoms CD is in tight alignment with the book in both content and structure. In brief, the book and the CD each provide encyclopedic information about the classification and description of organisms in the five kingdoms and in the 96 phyla that these kingdoms subsume. The line-by-line text on the CD was lifted, practically verbatim, from the book text, and the CD even includes some of the more “bookish” elements of the print volume, such as the foreword written by Stephen Jay Gould.

The CD also organizes the science content in a manner that is almost identical to the book. A quick glance at the book's table of contents shows a list of the five kingdoms (and related phyla) in a linear, hierarchical format. The CD replicates this structure by presenting a home page that lists the five kingdoms on the left half of the screen; when one of the kingdom buttons is clicked, a list of phyla appears on the right half of the screen. A click on the name of a specific phylum will take the reader to a page with illustrations, diagrams, and concise, dense, scholarly text about that phylum. In short, if you like the linear, encyclopedic structure of the book, the CD offers the same structure, but in an interactive format.

Because the original book received such wide acclaim in 1998 and has already been reviewed, refuted, and defended, I'm unlikely to contribute anything new by addressing the same content repackaged. Instead, I focus here on the transition from text to CD and highlight features that either enhance or detract from the already established merits of the original print version. The most obvious benefits from the shift to multi-media are (a) the added images, video clips, and sound bits made available by increased storage space and (b) the ability to engage in a more creative environment.

The Five Kingdoms CD contains hundreds of images, far more than the print version could accommodate; it also includes video clips and a few mouse-over sound bits. The sheer volume of images and diagrams is probably the CD's biggest strength. In the CD's “gallery,” the reader can click on thumbnail images and movies, and view the image or movie without changing screens. The downfall of the gallery feature, however, is that it lacks a quick link from a particular image to its corresponding information page. I would have liked a more inquiry-driven format, whereby I could click on a thumb-nail image, go to the image or movie, and then have the opportunity to link to the page that contains the image and its related information. Instead, I had to return to the contents page and dig through various listings of kingdoms and phyla to find the right information. Another aside about the gallery: As a science educator, I would have liked to incorporate some of these images into my own multimedia lectures and presentations, but the CD does not allow images to be copied, most likely for copyright reasons.

The CD offers additional features, such as a glossary and a search function (which is a nice bonus for readers with a good grasp of the highly technical, scientific language used throughout the CD). The CD also hosts a section called “Field Trips,” although “field trip” is a bit exaggerated: these excursions are actually only links to museum Web sites, many of which were inaccessible when I tried to reach them.

Although the CD version of Five Kingdoms does capitalize on the increased storage space available through multi-media, it does not take full advantage of the capacity of multimedia to entertain and draw the reader into the environment—with two exceptions. The first is the movies: though few and short, they add a new dimension to viewing what is otherwise a litany of still images. Second is the initial interface with the product, which opens with some fancy flash and a catchy, rhythmic musical backdrop of jungle drums. Unfortunately, after that short introduction, the rest of the interface is flat and rather regimented. Multi-media environments are essentially nonlinear and fluid—or should be. One advantage that a multimedia format has over print is that it can offer more and different connections between concepts. This CD, however, relies on lists to organize the interface, when a more integrated, organic structure would have worked far better. The linear structure was especially evident when I tried to navigate through the whole program. I found that I had to constantly click back to the contents page to find out where I was among the web of pages. The navigation tool, an unlabeled, generic floating bar, gave me few options other than the contents page, previous page, next page, forward, back, search, and exit.

The information pages, too, were clunky and unrefined. When I located a topic of interest, I could click on the associated text, and a lengthy, scientifically arcane description would appear in a separate window on the desktop, obscuring the image. Because the text box could not be resized, I had to close or move it to see the image. The technical crudeness of this page-level interface contrasted oddly with the complexity of the scientific language.

For individuals who value the print version of Five Kingdoms, however, the CD version will be a comfortable fit. Even if the CD does not take advantage of all the benefits of a multimedia experience, the science is solid, well recognized, and cited. The greater number of images and the addition of movie clips enhance the visual experience. I'm sure that the Five Kingdoms CD, like the book from which it was derived, will continue to shape the language of taxonomy and to structure the scholarship of these broad biological classifications.

KIM BILICA "A GENEALOGY OF LIFE ON EARTH," BioScience 56(2), 169-170, (1 February 2006). https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2006)056[0169:AGOLOE]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 February 2006
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