ISEE Upper Level Reading : Identifying and Analyzing Main Idea and Theme in Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ISEE Upper Level Reading

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Ideas In Science Passages

Adapted from On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organization becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.

We shall best understand the probable course of natural selection by taking the case of a country undergoing some physical change, for instance, of climate. The proportional numbers of its inhabitants would almost immediately undergo a change, and some species might become extinct. We may conclude, from what we have seen of the intimate and complex manner in which the inhabitants of each country are bound together, that any change in the numerical proportions of some of the inhabitants, independently of the change of climate itself, would most seriously affect many of the others. If the country were open on its borders, new forms would certainly immigrate, and this also would seriously disturb the relations of some of the former inhabitants. Let it be remembered how powerful the influence of a single introduced tree or mammal has been shown to be. But in the case of an island, or of a country partly surrounded by barriers, into which new and better adapted forms could not freely enter, we should then have places in the economy of nature which would assuredly be better filled up, if some of the original inhabitants were in some manner modified; for, had the area been open to immigration, these same places would have been seized on by intruders. In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favoured the individuals of any of the species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement.

The main topic of this passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

changes between parents and children

none of these answers

problems between spouses

faith in a higher power

science and evolution

Correct answer:

science and evolution

Explanation:

The passage seems focused on science and the progression of species over time. The language has mostly to do with "organic beings" and their evolution over time.

Example Question #2 : Ideas In Science Passages

Adapted from On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organization becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.

We shall best understand the probable course of natural selection by taking the case of a country undergoing some physical change, for instance, of climate. The proportional numbers of its inhabitants would almost immediately undergo a change, and some species might become extinct. We may conclude, from what we have seen of the intimate and complex manner in which the inhabitants of each country are bound together, that any change in the numerical proportions of some of the inhabitants, independently of the change of climate itself, would most seriously affect many of the others. If the country were open on its borders, new forms would certainly immigrate, and this also would seriously disturb the relations of some of the former inhabitants. Let it be remembered how powerful the influence of a single introduced tree or mammal has been shown to be. But in the case of an island, or of a country partly surrounded by barriers, into which new and better adapted forms could not freely enter, we should then have places in the economy of nature which would assuredly be better filled up, if some of the original inhabitants were in some manner modified; for, had the area been open to immigration, these same places would have been seized on by intruders. In such case, every slight modification, which in the course of ages chanced to arise, and which in any way favoured the individuals of any of the species, by better adapting them to their altered conditions, would tend to be preserved; and natural selection would thus have free scope for the work of improvement.

One of Darwin's key ideas is that __________.

Possible Answers:

Man's effect on farm animals is not dissimilar to the effect of natural selection, even though it is quite a different process.

humans have been fortunate to evolve as they have

other species aren't as good as humans

humans have nothing to do with evolution

none of these answers

Correct answer:

Man's effect on farm animals is not dissimilar to the effect of natural selection, even though it is quite a different process.

Explanation:

Darwin writes, "Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations?" He is suggesting here that variations might assist and change different creatures over generations, and that man has caused such variations in domesticated animals.

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Science Passages

Adapted from "Recent Views as to Direct Action of Light on the Colors of Flowers and Fruits" in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The theory that the brilliant colors of flowers and fruits is due to the direct action of light has been supported by a recent writer by examples taken from the arctic instead of from the tropical flora. In the arctic regions, vegetation is excessively rapid during the short summer, and this is held to be due to the continuous action of light throughout the long summer days. “The further we advance towards the north, the more the leaves of plants increase in size as if to absorb a greater proportion of the solar rays. M. Grisebach says that during a journey in Norway he observed that the majority of deciduous trees had already, at the 60th degree of latitude, larger leaves than in Germany, while M. Ch. Martins has made a similar observation as regards the leguminous plants cultivated in Lapland.” The same writer goes on to say that all the seeds of cultivated plants acquire a deeper color the further north they are grown, white haricots becoming brown or black, and white wheat becoming brown, while the green color of all vegetation becomes more intense. The flowers also are similarly changed: those which are white or yellow in central Europe becoming red or orange in Norway. This is what occurs in the Alpine flora, and the cause is said to be the same in both—the greater intensity of the sunlight. In the one the light is more persistent, in the other more intense because it traverses a less thickness of atmosphere.

Admitting the facts as above stated to be in themselves correct, they do not by any means establish the theory founded on them; and it is curious that Grisebach, who has been quoted by this writer for the fact of the increased size of the foliage, gives a totally different explanation of the more vivid colors of Arctic flowers. He says, “We see flowers become larger and more richly colored in proportion as, by the increasing length of winter, insects become rarer, and their cooperation in the act of fecundation is exposed to more uncertain chances.” (Vegetation du Globe, col. i. p. 61—French translation.) This is the theory here adopted to explain the colors of Alpine plants, and we believe there are many facts that will show it to be the preferable one. The statement that the white and yellow flowers of temperate Europe become red or golden in the Arctic regions must we think be incorrect. By roughly tabulating the colors of the plants given by Sir Joseph Hooker as permanently Arctic, we find among fifty species with more or less conspicuous flowers, twenty-five white, twelve yellow, eight purple or blue, three lilac, and two red or pink; showing a very similar proportion of white and yellow flowers to what obtains further south.

The purpose of this passage is ___________.

Possible Answers:

to propose a definitive experiment

to discuss several interpretations of a phenomenon

to describe new research

to attack a scientist for his faulty methodology

to cast doubt on a widely accepted scientific law

Correct answer:

to discuss several interpretations of a phenomenon

Explanation:

Throughout this passage, the author describes several theories explaining "the brilliant colors of flowers and fruits." In the first paragraph, he describes the ideas of "a recent writer," who quotes observations made by "M. Grisebach" and "M. Ch. Martins." In the second paragraph, the author disagrees with the theory of the "recent writer" and agrees with Grisebach, who turns out to have a opinion distinct from that of the "recent writer." Nowhere in the passage does the author "cast doubt on a widely accepted scientific law," as the theory of the "recent writer" is a theory, not a scientific law; similarly, nowhere does the author "propose a definitive experiment," "attack a scientist for his faulty methodology." While the writer does describe research, his doing so is not the main purpose of the passage. He only describes research in order to bring data into his discussion of one of the various theories mentioned in the passage.

Example Question #2 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Science Passages

Adapted from "Recent Views as to Direct Action of Light on the Colors of Flowers and Fruits" in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The theory that the brilliant colors of flowers and fruits is due to the direct action of light has been supported by a recent writer by examples taken from the arctic instead of from the tropical flora. In the arctic regions, vegetation is excessively rapid during the short summer, and this is held to be due to the continuous action of light throughout the long summer days. "The further we advance towards the north, the more the leaves of plants increase in size as if to absorb a greater proportion of the solar rays. M. Grisebach says that during a journey in Norway he observed that the majority of deciduous trees had already, at the 60th degree of latitude, larger leaves than in Germany, while M. Ch. Martins has made a similar observation as regards the leguminous plants cultivated in Lapland.” The same writer goes on to say that all the seeds of cultivated plants acquire a deeper color the further north they are grown, white haricots becoming brown or black, and white wheat becoming brown, while the green color of all vegetation becomes more intense. The flowers also are similarly changed: those which are white or yellow in central Europe becoming red or orange in Norway. This is what occurs in the Alpine flora, and the cause is said to be the same in both—the greater intensity of the sunlight. In the one the light is more persistent, in the other more intense because it traverses a less thickness of atmosphere.

Admitting the facts as above stated to be in themselves correct, they do not by any means establish the theory founded on them; and it is curious that Grisebach, who has been quoted by this writer for the fact of the increased size of the foliage, gives a totally different explanation of the more vivid colors of Arctic flowers. He says, “We see flowers become larger and more richly colored in proportion as, by the increasing length of winter, insects become rarer, and their cooperation in the act of fecundation is exposed to more uncertain chances.” (Vegetation du Globe, col. i. p. 61—French translation.) This is the theory here adopted to explain the colors of Alpine plants, and we believe there are many facts that will show it to be the preferable one. The statement that the white and yellow flowers of temperate Europe become red or golden in the Arctic regions must we think be incorrect. By roughly tabulating the colors of the plants given by Sir Joseph Hooker as permanently Arctic, we find among fifty species with more or less conspicuous flowers, twenty-five white, twelve yellow, eight purple or blue, three lilac, and two red or pink; showing a very similar proportion of white and yellow flowers to what obtains further south.

The author’s critique of the theory presented in the first paragraph is that __________.

Possible Answers:

The author does not critique the theory presented in the first paragraph; he wholeheartedly agrees with its claims.

they are true, but do not support the theory established based on them

only some of the facts are true, casting doubt on the reliability of the theory as a whole

the facts supporting the theory are false, so the theory is also false

the facts were gathered in an unscientific manner and are thus not reliable, making the theory doubtful

Correct answer:

they are true, but do not support the theory established based on them

Explanation:

At the start of the second paragraph, the author says, "Admitting the facts as above stated to be in themselves correct, they do not by any means establish the theory founded on them." So, the correct answer is that "[the facts] are true, but do not support the theory established based on them."

Example Question #5 : Summarizing And Describing Natural Science Passage Content

Adapted from An Introduction to Astronomy by Forest Ray Moulton (1916 ed.)

The ancient Greeks, at a period four or five hundred years preceding the common era, definitely undertook to find from systematic observation how celestial phenomena follow one another. They determined very accurately the number of days in the year, the period of the moon's revolution, and the paths of the sun and the moon among the stars; they correctly explained the cause of eclipses and learned how to predict them with a considerable degree of accuracy; they undertook to measure the distances to the heavenly bodies, and to work out a complete system that would represent their motions. The idea was current among the Greek philosophers that the earth was spherical, that it turned on its axis, and, among some of them, that it revolved around the sun. They had true science in the modern acceptance of the term, but it was largely confined to the relations among celestial phenomena.

The conception that the heavens are orderly, which they definitely formulated and acted on with remarkable success, has been extended, especially in the last two centuries, so as to include the whole universe. The extension was first made to the inanimate world and then to the more complicated phenomena associated with living beings. Every increase in carefully recorded experience has confirmed and strengthened the belief that nature is perfectly orderly, until now every one who has had an opportunity of becoming familiar with any science is firmly convinced of the truth of this principle, which is the basis of all science.

Which of the following best summarizes this passage’s remarks on Greek science?

Possible Answers:

They did have a true science in one regard at least.

Their work was the basis for modern astronomy.

They were the only people to think the world was orderly.

None of the other answers

Their mania for celestial phenomena advanced science to a great degree.

Correct answer:

They did have a true science in one regard at least.

Explanation:

Throughout this passage, the author lays out the case that the Greeks had at least one science, namely something like what we would call "astronomy." Although they did not have many other sciences—in the opinion of the author, at least—they had at least this one branch of science "in the modern acceptance of the term."

Example Question #3 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Science Passages

Adapted from An Introduction to Astronomy by Forest Ray Moulton (1916 ed.)

The ancient Greeks, at a period four or five hundred years preceding the common era, definitely undertook to find from systematic observation how celestial phenomena follow one another. They determined very accurately the number of days in the year, the period of the moon's revolution, and the paths of the sun and the moon among the stars; they correctly explained the cause of eclipses and learned how to predict them with a considerable degree of accuracy; they undertook to measure the distances to the heavenly bodies, and to work out a complete system that would represent their motions. The idea was current among the Greek philosophers that the earth was spherical, that it turned on its axis, and, among some of them, that it revolved around the sun. They had true science in the modern acceptance of the term, but it was largely confined to the relations among celestial phenomena.

The conception that the heavens are orderly, which they definitely formulated and acted on with remarkable success, has been extended, especially in the last two centuries, so as to include the whole universe. The extension was first made to the inanimate world and then to the more complicated phenomena associated with living beings. Every increase in carefully recorded experience has confirmed and strengthened the belief that nature is perfectly orderly, until now every one who has had an opportunity of becoming familiar with any science is firmly convinced of the truth of this principle, which is the basis of all science.

What is the main idea of the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

None of the other answers

That science depends upon the regularity of that which it studies

That science has finally outlined the complete details of the orderliness of the universe

That the Greeks could not fathom the depths of the universe's orderliness

That science was only possible because of the orderliness of the heavens

Correct answer:

That science depends upon the regularity of that which it studies

Explanation:

The general idea of the second paragraph is that orderliness is necessary for there to be any science, for science discovers laws and enumerates them. The paragraph goes on to stress the growth in this awareness. However, it does not say that every detail has been so recognized. Likewise, it does not speak disparagingly of the Greeks, though they did not realize the extent to which modern physics would assert order in the whole of the cosmos. The most direct answer is the best: "That science depends upon the regularity of that which it studies."

Example Question #3 : Understanding Main Ideas In Humanities Passages

Adapted from “The Influence of the Conception of Evolution on Modern Philosophy” by H. Höffding (1909) in Evolution in Modern Thought (1917 ed.)

When The Origin of Species appeared fifty years ago, Romantic speculation, Schelling's and Hegel's philosophy, still reigned on the continent, while in England, Positivism, the philosophy of Comte and Stuart Mill, represented the most important trend of thought. German speculation had much to say on evolution; it even pretended to be a philosophy of evolution. But then the word "evolution" was to be taken in an ideal, not in a real, sense. To speculative thought, the forms and types of nature formed a system of ideas, within which any form could lead us by continuous transitions to any other. It was a classificatory system which was regarded as a divine world of thought or images, within which metamorphoses could go on—a condition comparable with that in the mind of the poet when one image follows another with imperceptible changes.

Goethe's ideas of evolution, as expressed in his Metamorphosen der Pflanzen und der Thiere, belong to this category; it is, therefore, incorrect to call him a forerunner of Darwin. Schelling and Hegel held the same idea; Hegel expressly rejected the conception of a real evolution in time as coarse and materialistic. "Nature," he says, "is to be considered as a system of stages, the one necessarily arising from the other, and being the nearest truth of that from which it proceeds; but not in such a way that the one is naturally generated by the other; on the contrary [their connection lies] in the inner idea which is the ground of nature. The metamorphosis can be ascribed only to the notion as such, because it alone is evolution.... It has been a clumsy idea in the older as well as in the newer philosophy of nature, to regard the transformation and the transition from one natural form and sphere to a higher as an outward and actual production."

Why is it fair to say, based on Höffding's words, that the German speculation on evolution was not really scientific?

Possible Answers:

It was more of an artistic idea than one based on facts.

It was derived from theological speculation on divine ideas.

It got caught up in transitions between species and never had any concrete ideas.

None of the other answers

It made no appeal to Darwin's work, at least explicitly.

Correct answer:

It was more of an artistic idea than one based on facts.

Explanation:

The way that the romantic philosophers argued was more like a poetic image than that of a scientific discourse. At the close of the first paragraph, this is indicated by the description: "A condition comparable with that in the mind of the poet when one image follows another with imperceptible changes." The overall image that Höffding provides of Romantic speculation is one of literary presentation and idealized images.

Example Question #3 : Science Passages

Adapted from “The Influence of the Conception of Evolution on Modern Philosophy” by H. Höffding (1909) in Evolution in Modern Thought (1917 ed.)

When The Origin of Species appeared fifty years ago, Romantic speculation, Schelling's and Hegel's philosophy, still reigned on the continent, while in England, Positivism, the philosophy of Comte and Stuart Mill, represented the most important trend of thought. German speculation had much to say on evolution; it even pretended to be a philosophy of evolution. But then the word "evolution" was to be taken in an ideal, not in a real, sense. To speculative thought, the forms and types of nature formed a system of ideas, within which any form could lead us by continuous transitions to any other. It was a classificatory system which was regarded as a divine world of thought or images, within which metamorphoses could go on—a condition comparable with that in the mind of the poet when one image follows another with imperceptible changes.

Goethe's ideas of evolution, as expressed in his Metamorphosen der Pflanzen und der Thiere, belong to this category; it is, therefore, incorrect to call him a forerunner of Darwin. Schelling and Hegel held the same idea; Hegel expressly rejected the conception of a real evolution in time as coarse and materialistic. "Nature," he says, "is to be considered as a system of stages, the one necessarily arising from the other, and being the nearest truth of that from which it proceeds; but not in such a way that the one is naturally generated by the other; on the contrary [their connection lies] in the inner idea which is the ground of nature. The metamorphosis can be ascribed only to the notion as such, because it alone is evolution.... It has been a clumsy idea in the older as well as in the newer philosophy of nature, to regard the transformation and the transition from one natural form and sphere to a higher as an outward and actual production."

What is the overall purpose of this selection?

Possible Answers:

To compare and contrast positivism and German Romanticism.

To provide an outline of the development of one particular approach to the scientific question of evolution.

None of the other answers

To show that while there was much German discussion of evolution, it has little to do with The Origin of Species.

To catalogue the prominent figures of German Romanticism.

Correct answer:

To show that while there was much German discussion of evolution, it has little to do with The Origin of Species.

Explanation:

This passage opens by framing the discussion in terms of Darwin's Origin of Species. Throughout the passage, it wishes to show how the German Romantics used the word and notion of "evolution" in a way that was radically different from that used by Darwin. In this selection, at least, we are not presented with a rigorous comparison/contrast with positivism, though it is mentioned at the beginning. This whole passage focuses on how certain figures used the term in a way quite different from that of Darwin. (Note, also, that the passage does not provide a complete catalogue of positions.)

Example Question #52 : Comprehension

"The Multiple Sides of Computer Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

It often takes some time for a new discipline to become recognized as an independent science. An excellent example of this is computer science. In many ways, this science still is a hodgepodge of several different sciences, each one having its own distinct character. For example, some computer scientists are almost indistinguishable from mathematicians. Many of the most difficult topics in pattern recognition and data communications require intensive mathematics in order to provide software solutions. Years of training in the appropriate disciplines are necessary before the computer scientist can even begin to work as a programmer in such areas. In contrast to those computer scientists who work with complex mathematics, many computer scientists work on areas of hardware development that are similar to disciplines like electrical engineering and physics.

However, computer science has its own particular problems regarding the unity of its subject matter. There are many practical applications for computing work; therefore, many computer scientists focus on learning a large set of skills in programming languages, development environments, and even information technology. All of these disciplines have a certain practical coloration that is quite distinct from the theoretical concepts used in other parts of the field. Nevertheless, these practical topics add to the broad range of topics covered by most academic programs that claim to focus on “computer science.” It can only be hoped that these disciplines will increase in orderliness in the coming decades.

What is the main point introduced in the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

Computer science only becomes "real" when it is applied to the real world

Computer science is a very practical science for most topics

Many programmers are mere technicians, not real computer scientists

None of these

The applied nature of computer science creates a unique set of problems regarding the discipline's unity

Correct answer:

The applied nature of computer science creates a unique set of problems regarding the discipline's unity

Explanation:

The second paragraph focuses on the fact that computer science has a host of practical applications. In particular, these practical applications make it even more difficult to see the focus of computer science studies. Therefore, they tend to hide the unity of the topic even more (that is, even beyond the more "academic" issues discussed in the first paragraph).

Example Question #1 : Cause And Effect In Natural Science Passages

"The Multiple Sides of Computer Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

It often takes some time for a new discipline to become recognized as an independent science. An excellent example of this is computer science. In many ways, this science still is a hodgepodge of several different sciences, each one having its own distinct character. For example, some computer scientists are almost indistinguishable from mathematicians. Many of the most difficult topics in pattern recognition and data communications require intensive mathematics in order to provide software solutions. Years of training in the appropriate disciplines are necessary before the computer scientist can even begin to work as a programmer in such areas. In contrast to those computer scientists who work with complex mathematics, many computer scientists work on areas of hardware development that are similar to disciplines like electrical engineering and physics.

However, computer science has its own particular problems regarding the unity of its subject matter. There are many practical applications for computing work; therefore, many computer scientists focus on learning a large set of skills in programming languages, development environments, and even information technology. All of these disciplines have a certain practical coloration that is quite distinct from the theoretical concepts used in other parts of the field. Nevertheless, these practical topics add to the broad range of topics covered by most academic programs that claim to focus on “computer science.” It can only be hoped that these disciplines will increase in orderliness in the coming decades.

What will be the effect of increased orderliness in computer science studies?

Possible Answers:

It will help to overcome biases against practical applications of computer science

It will be easier to understand the distinct topic studied in computer science

It will allow for greater progress in experimentation

It will set to rest the debates about computer science's importance

It will make scheduling much easier for most students

Correct answer:

It will be easier to understand the distinct topic studied in computer science

Explanation:

The main focus of this whole passage is the fact that it is hard to figure out the single thing studied by computer science. It has many branches, all of which seem to be rather different and unrelated (or at least not very related). With increased orderliness, we can assume that it will become clearer just what is the special topic studied in computer science—as opposed to mathematics, physics, or information technology.

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