GMAT Verbal : Understanding the Content of Natural Science Passages

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for GMAT Verbal

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Example Question #1 : Understanding Main Ideas In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “Humming-Birds: As Illustrating the Luxuriance of Tropical Nature” in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The food of hummingbirds has been a matter of much controversy. All the early writers down to Buffon believed that they lived solely on the nectar of flowers, but since that time, every close observer of their habits maintains that they feed largely, and in some cases wholly, on insects. Azara observed them on the La Plata in winter taking insects out of the webs of spiders at a time and place where there were no flowers. Bullock, in Mexico, declares that he saw them catch small butterflies, and that he found many kinds of insects in their stomachs. Waterton made a similar statement. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of specimens have since been dissected by collecting naturalists, and in almost every instance their stomachs have been found full of insects, sometimes, but not generally, mixed with a proportion of honey. Many of them in fact may be seen catching gnats and other small insects just like fly-catchers, sitting on a dead twig over water, darting off for a time in the air, and then returning to the twig. Others come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose. Mr. Gosse also remarks, ” All the hummingbirds have more or less the habit, when in flight, of pausing in the air and throwing the body and tail into rapid and odd contortions. This is most observable in the Polytmus, from the effect that such motions have on the long feathers of the tail. That the object of these quick turns is the capture of insects, I am sure, having watched one thus engaged pretty close to me.”

The purpose of this passage is __________.

Possible Answers:

to explain why one should feed a captive hummingbird insects and not flower nectar

to consider the opinions of scientists on what hummingbirds eat

to discuss the Polytmus’ feeding habits

to critique the opinions of other scientists

to propose a definitive experiment about what hummingbirds eat

Correct answer:

to consider the opinions of scientists on what hummingbirds eat

Explanation:

When answering questions about a passage’s purpose or main idea, it’s important to pick an answer choice that is broad enough to encompass the entire passage. For instance, while the Polytmus’ feeding habits are discussed in the passage, it can’t be said to be the purpose of the passage, since it’s only mentioned as a small detail. The passage can’t be said to critique the opinions of other scientists, because for the most part, the author quotes findings by scientists with whom he does not disagree. A definitive experiment is never proposed, and captive hummingbirds are never discussed. The passage does provide the opinions of scientists on what hummingbirds eat; this accurately captures the intent of the entire passage, not just some of its parts, and doesn’t state it too broadly.

Example Question #1 : Understanding Main Ideas In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “Birds in Retreat” in “Animal Defences—Active Defence” in Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

Among the large running birds are forms, like the African ostrich, in which the absence of powers of flight is largely compensated by the specialization of the legs for the purpose of rapid movement on the ground. For straightforward retreat in open country nothing could be more effective; but another kind of adaptation is required in birds like rails, which are deficient in powers of flight, and yet are able to run through thickly-growing vegetation with such rapidity as to commonly elude their enemies. This is rendered possible by the shape of their bodies, which are relatively narrow and flattened from side to side, so as to easily slip between the stems of grasses, rushes, and similar plants. Anyone who has pursued our native land-rail or corn-crake with intent to capture will have noted how extremely difficult it is even to get within sight of a bird of this sort. 

Certain birds, unfortunately for themselves, have lost the power of flight without correspondingly increased powers of running, and have paid the penalty of extinction. Such an arrangement, as might be anticipated, was the result of evolution in islands devoid of any predatory ground-animals, and a classic example of it is afforded by the dodo and its allies, birds related to the pigeons. The dodo itself was a large and clumsy-looking species that at one time abounded in the island of Mauritius, which, like oceanic islands generally, possessed no native mammals, while its indigenous reptiles were only represented by lizards. The ubiquitous sailor, however, and the animals (especially swine) which he introduced, brought about the extinction of this helpless bird in less than a century after its first discovery in 1598. Its memory is now only kept green by a few contemporary drawings and descriptions, certain museum remains, and the proverb "as extinct as a dodo.” A similar fate must overtake any organism suddenly exposed to new and unfavorable conditions, if devoid of sufficient plasticity to rapidly accommodate itself to the altered environment.

Which of the following best states the main idea of this passage?

Possible Answers:

Birds employ a variety of defenses for avoiding predators.

The African ostrich’s strong leg muscles makes it well adapted to its environment.

Flightless birds adapt to their particular surroundings.

The extinction of the dodo can be traced to human causes.

Flightless birds sometimes develop strong running abilities, but if they don’t, they may be threatened with extinction.

Correct answer:

Flightless birds sometimes develop strong running abilities, but if they don’t, they may be threatened with extinction.

Explanation:

When asked to identify a passage’s main idea, it is important to pick out an answer choice to which all of the paragraphs can relate, but that is not too broad in including things that the passage does not discuss. Considering if each of the answer choices falls into one or another of these categories can help you narrow down your choices. For instance, “Birds employ a variety of defenses for avoiding predators” is far too broad to accurately describer this passage’s main idea. The author only discusses flightless birds, not all birds. “Flightless birds adapt to their particular surroundings” cannot be correct either, as the first paragraph discusses this, but the second paragraph discusses a flightless bird that did not adapt to its surroundings. Since the second paragraph can’t relate to this answer, it can’t be the main idea of the entire passage. Two of the remaining answer choices can be discarded due to their being too detailed: “The African ostrich’s strong leg muscles makes it well adapted to its environment” and “The extinction of the dodo can be traced to human causes.” While the first of these choices is stated in the first paragraph and the second is stated in the second paragraph, neither relates to the other paragraph, or even adequately summarizes the entire paragraph in which it appears. This leaves us with one answer choice, the correct one: “Flightless birds sometimes develop strong running abilities, but if they don’t, they may be threatened with extinction.” Each of the two paragraphs can relate to this answer choice, but it doesn’t include things that the passage doesn’t discuss.

Example Question #11 : Identifying And Analyzing Main Idea And Theme In Science Passages

Adapted from Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

The examples of protective resemblance so far quoted are mostly permanent adaptations to one particular sort of surrounding. There are, however, numerous animals which possess the power of adjusting their color more or less rapidly so as to harmonize with a changing environment.

Some of the best known of these cases are found among those mammals and birds that inhabit countries more or less covered with snow during a part of the year. A good instance is afforded by the Irish or variable hare, which is chiefly found in Ireland and Scotland. In summer, this looks very much like an ordinary hare, though rather grayer in tint and smaller in size, but in winter it becomes white with the exception of the black tips to the ears. Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue. 

The common stoat is subject to similar color change in the northern parts of its range. In summer it is of a bright reddish brown color with the exception of the under parts, which are yellowish white, and the end of the tail, which is black. But in winter, the entire coat, save only the tip of the tail, becomes white, and in that condition the animal is known as an ermine. A similar example is afforded by the weasel. The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.

Which of the following best expresses the main idea of the passage?

Possible Answers:

All animals that live in a changing environment change color.

Animals like the stoat, the weasel, and the Irish hare are better adapted to changing environments than to unchanging ones.

Increased defense is the only reason for an animal to change its fur color.

Certain animals change their fur color to be better predators or better at hiding.

The Scottish hare changes its fur color.

Correct answer:

Certain animals change their fur color to be better predators or better at hiding.

Explanation:

When answering questions about the main idea of a passage, it’s important to pick out an answer choice to which each paragraph relates, but one that isn’t too broad. Some of the answer choices to this question are too specific: “The Scottish hare changes its fur color” is, and we can tell because the first paragraph doesn’t say anything about the Scottish hare, and the third paragraph only mentions it in its last line. “Increased defense is the only reason for an animal to change its fur color” should get your attention due to its use of the word “only”—did we hear anything in the passage about color-changing adaptations being used “only” for defense? No, we heard the opposite, in the passage’s last line: “The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.” The language may be a bit dense here, but what the passage is saying is that the hare uses its color-changing adaptation for defense, but stoats and weasels use it for being better predators and sneaking up on their prey—definitely not a defensive use. Similarly, “All animals that live in a changing environment change color” is making a strong statement due to its use of the word “all.” The passage gives us a few examples of animals that change that live in a changing environment and change their color, but this isn’t enough for us to assume that all animals that live in changing environments act this way. 

Example Question #1 : Analyzing Details In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “Birds in Retreat” in “Animal Defences—Active Defence” in Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

Among the large running birds are forms, like the African ostrich, in which the absence of powers of flight is largely compensated by the specialization of the legs for the purpose of rapid movement on the ground. For straightforward retreat in open country nothing could be more effective; but another kind of adaptation is required in birds like rails, which are deficient in powers of flight, and yet are able to run through thickly-growing vegetation with such rapidity as to commonly elude their enemies. This is rendered possible by the shape of their bodies, which are relatively narrow and flattened from side to side, so as to easily slip between the stems of grasses, rushes, and similar plants. Anyone who has pursued our native land-rail or corn-crake with intent to capture will have noted how extremely difficult it is even to get within sight of a bird of this sort. 

Certain birds, unfortunately for themselves, have lost the power of flight without correspondingly increased powers of running, and have paid the penalty of extinction. Such an arrangement, as might be anticipated, was the result of evolution in islands devoid of any predatory ground-animals, and a classic example of it is afforded by the dodo and its allies, birds related to the pigeons. The dodo itself was a large and clumsy-looking species that at one time abounded in the island of Mauritius, which, like oceanic islands generally, possessed no native mammals, while its indigenous reptiles were only represented by lizards. The ubiquitous sailor, however, and the animals (especially swine) which he introduced, brought about the extinction of this helpless bird in less than a century after its first discovery in 1598. Its memory is now only kept green by a few contemporary drawings and descriptions, certain museum remains, and the proverb "as extinct as a dodo.” A similar fate must overtake any organism suddenly exposed to new and unfavorable conditions, if devoid of sufficient plasticity to rapidly accommodate itself to the altered environment.

What kinds of reptiles are indigenous to Mauritius?

Possible Answers:

Snakes and crocodiles

Lizards

Lizards and snakes too small to eat dodos

Snakes

Lizards, snakes, and crocodiles

Correct answer:

Lizards

Explanation:

The passage introduces Mauritius as “the island of Mauritius, which, like oceanic islands generally, possessed no native mammals, while its indigenous reptiles were only represented by lizards.” This tells us that the only reptiles indigenous to Mauritius are lizards, making “lizards” the correct answer.

Example Question #1 : Recognizing And Analyzing Supporting Ideas And Details In Natural Science Passages

"Darwinism's Effect on Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

For much of the history of human thought, the sciences have studied subjects that seemed to be eternal and unchanging. Even the basic laws of the Nile’s flooding were investigated in the hopes of finding never-altering laws. Similarly, the scientific investigations of the ancient Near East and Greece into the regular laws of the stars ultimately looked for constant patterns. This overall pattern of scientific reasoning has left deep marks on the minds of almost all thinkers and found its apotheosis in modern physics. From the time of the early renaissance to the nineteenth century, physics represented the ultimate expression of scientific investigation for almost all thinkers. Its static laws appeared to be the unchanging principles of all motion and life on earth. By the nineteenth century, it had appeared that only a few details had to be “cleared up” before all science was basically known.

In many ways, this situation changed dramatically with the arrival of Darwinism. It would change even more dramatically in early twentieth-century physics as well. Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged many aspects of the “static” worldview. Even those who did not believe that a divine being created an unchanging world were shaken by the new vistas opened up to science by his studies. It had been a long-accepted inheritance of Western culture to believe that the species of living organisms were unchanging in nature. Though there might be many different kinds of creatures, the kinds themselves were not believed to change. The thesis of a universal morphing of types shattered this cosmology, replacing the old world-view with a totally new one. Among the things that had to change in light of Darwin’s work was the very view of science held by most people.

Which of the following gives the best example of the “static worldview” discussed in the second paragraph?

Possible Answers:

"In many ways, this situation changed dramatically with the arrival of Darwinism."

"Even those who did not believe that a divine being created an unchanging world were shaken by the new vistas opened up to science by his studies."

"Among the things that had to change in light of Darwin’s work was the very view of science held by most people."

"The thesis of a universal morphing of types shattered this cosmology, replacing the old world-view with a totally new one."

"Though there might be many different kinds of creatures, the kinds themselves were not believed to change."

Correct answer:

"Though there might be many different kinds of creatures, the kinds themselves were not believed to change."

Explanation:

Among the answer choices provided, only one implies an example of the static worldview that preceded Darwin. The answer states that the kinds of creatures were believed not change. This is an example of an outlook that believes things to be unchanging.

Example Question #301 : Isee Middle Level (Grades 7 8) Reading Comprehension

"Darwinism's Effect on Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

For much of the history of human thought, the sciences have studied subjects that seemed to be eternal and unchanging. Even the basic laws of the Nile’s flooding were investigated in the hopes of finding never-altering laws. Similarly, the scientific investigations of the ancient Near East and Greece into the regular laws of the stars ultimately looked for constant patterns. This overall pattern of scientific reasoning has left deep marks on the minds of almost all thinkers and found its apotheosis in modern physics. From the time of the early renaissance to the nineteenth century, physics represented the ultimate expression of scientific investigation for almost all thinkers. Its static laws appeared to be the unchanging principles of all motion and life on earth. By the nineteenth century, it had appeared that only a few details had to be “cleared up” before all science was basically known.

In many ways, this situation changed dramatically with the arrival of Darwinism. It would change even more dramatically in early twentieth-century physics as well. Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged many aspects of the “static” worldview. Even those who did not believe that a divine being created an unchanging world were shaken by the new vistas opened up to science by his studies. It had been a long-accepted inheritance of Western culture to believe that the species of living organisms were unchanging in nature. Though there might be many different kinds of creatures, the kinds themselves were not believed to change. The thesis of a universal morphing of types shattered this cosmology, replacing the old world-view with a totally new one. Among the things that had to change in light of Darwin’s work was the very view of science held by most people.

According to the passage, what is the source of modern science?

Possible Answers:

Renaissance scientists

Renaissance humanists

Greek astronomy

None of the other answers

Egyptian mathematics

Correct answer:

None of the other answers

Explanation:

This passage does not really provide a direct history of the "rise of science" and its history. It does provide examples of a certain outlook, using Egypt, the Near East, and Greece as examples. However, none of these are claimed to be the primary ancestors of science.

Example Question #1 : Identifying And Analyzing Supporting Ideas In Science Passages

"Darwinism's Effect on Science" by Matthew Minerd (2014)

For much of the history of human thought, the sciences have studied subjects that seemed to be eternal and unchanging. Even the basic laws of the Nile’s flooding were investigated in the hopes of finding never-altering laws. Similarly, the scientific investigations of the ancient Near East and Greece into the regular laws of the stars ultimately looked for constant patterns. This overall pattern of scientific reasoning has left deep marks on the minds of almost all thinkers and found its apotheosis in modern physics. From the time of the early renaissance to the nineteenth century, physics represented the ultimate expression of scientific investigation for almost all thinkers. Its static laws appeared to be the unchanging principles of all motion and life on earth. By the nineteenth century, it had appeared that only a few details had to be “cleared up” before all science was basically known.

In many ways, this situation changed dramatically with the arrival of Darwinism. It would change even more dramatically in early twentieth-century physics as well. Darwin’s theories of evolution challenged many aspects of the “static” worldview. Even those who did not believe that a divine being created an unchanging world were shaken by the new vistas opened up to science by his studies. It had been a long-accepted inheritance of Western culture to believe that the species of living organisms were unchanging in nature. Though there might be many different kinds of creatures, the kinds themselves were not believed to change. The thesis of a universal morphing of types shattered this cosmology, replacing the old world-view with a totally new one. Among the things that had to change in light of Darwin’s work was the very view of science held by most people.

Which of the following provides an example of the main idea asserted in the first paragraph?

Possible Answers:

The Pythagorean theorem is based upon the constant relationship of the sides of a right triangle to its hypotenuse.

The interest in science only arises once agriculture reaches a certain point of fixity.

None of the other answers

Religion constantly wanes with the rise of science.

The fluctuation of coloration within a species is rather minimal.

Correct answer:

The Pythagorean theorem is based upon the constant relationship of the sides of a right triangle to its hypotenuse.

Explanation:

The first paragraph discusses the role of necessary connections and unvarying rules in scientific thinking, particularly the type of thinking that has played a prominent role in Western thought for many centuries. The example of the Pythagorean theorem is a good example of this.  Even if you do not know this mathematical equation, you can tell that this is the correct answer by the words "constant relationship."

Example Question #1 : Recognizing And Analyzing Supporting Ideas And Details In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

The examples of protective resemblance so far quoted are mostly permanent adaptations to one particular sort of surrounding. There are, however, numerous animals which possess the power of adjusting their color more or less rapidly so as to harmonize with a changing environment.

Some of the best known of these cases are found among those mammals and birds that inhabit countries more or less covered with snow during a part of the year. A good instance is afforded by the Irish or variable hare, which is chiefly found in Ireland and Scotland. In summer, this looks very much like an ordinary hare, though rather grayer in tint and smaller in size, but in winter it becomes white with the exception of the black tips to the ears. Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue. 

The common stoat is subject to similar color change in the northern parts of its range. In summer it is of a bright reddish brown color with the exception of the under parts, which are yellowish white, and the end of the tail, which is black. But in winter, the entire coat, save only the tip of the tail, becomes white, and in that condition the animal is known as an ermine. A similar example is afforded by the weasel. The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.

Why is the American hare mentioned in the passage?

Possible Answers:

It is a predator of the Scottish hare.

It is a type of hare that does not change color.

Scientists have studied it to find out how a hare’s fur changes color.

It is another name for the Scottish hare.

It is better at hiding than the Scottish hare.

Correct answer:

Scientists have studied it to find out how a hare’s fur changes color.

Explanation:

The American hare is mentioned in the last line of the passage’s second paragraph, “Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue.” Here, the American hare is mentioned because “investigations” “have been made” on it, and those “investigations” “seem to show that the phenomenon is due to” something. We can tell from this context that in these “investigations,” scientists have studied how a hare’s fur changes color, since they are about what “the phenomenon is due to.” This means that “Scientists have studied it to find out how a hare’s fur changes color.” None of the other answer choices are supported by the passage.

Example Question #31 : Locating Details In Narrative Science Passages

Adapted from Volume Four of The Natural History of Animals: The Animal Life of the World in Its Various Aspects and Relations by James Richard Ainsworth Davis (1903)

The examples of protective resemblance so far quoted are mostly permanent adaptations to one particular sort of surrounding. There are, however, numerous animals which possess the power of adjusting their color more or less rapidly so as to harmonize with a changing environment.

Some of the best known of these cases are found among those mammals and birds that inhabit countries more or less covered with snow during a part of the year. A good instance is afforded by the Irish or variable hare, which is chiefly found in Ireland and Scotland. In summer, this looks very much like an ordinary hare, though rather grayer in tint and smaller in size, but in winter it becomes white with the exception of the black tips to the ears. Investigations that have been made on the closely allied American hare seem to show that the phenomenon is due to the growth of new hairs of white hue. 

The common stoat is subject to similar color change in the northern parts of its range. In summer it is of a bright reddish brown color with the exception of the under parts, which are yellowish white, and the end of the tail, which is black. But in winter, the entire coat, save only the tip of the tail, becomes white, and in that condition the animal is known as an ermine. A similar example is afforded by the weasel. The seasonal change in the vegetarian Irish hare is purely of protective character, but in such an actively carnivorous creature as a stoat or weasel, it is aggressive as well, rendering the animal inconspicuous to its prey.

A stoat might also be called __________.

Possible Answers:

an ermine, depending on where it lives

a weasel, depending on its fur color

a weasel, depending on what it eats

a weasel, depending on where it lives

an ermine, depending on its fur color

Correct answer:

an ermine, depending on its fur color

Explanation:

The passage’s last paragraph provides the information we need to answer this question.  The paragraph begins by describing “the common stoat.” Eventually, it says, “But in winter, the entire coat, save only the tip of the tail, becomes white, and in that condition the animal is known as an ermine.” While this sentence is followed by “A similar example is afforded by the weasel,” this means that the weasel is another example of an animal that changes its fur color, not that a stoat can be called a weasel. It means that a weasel is a distinct type of animal. The correct answer is that a stoat might also be called “an ermine, depending on its fur color.”

Example Question #1 : Determining Context Dependent Meanings Of Phrases And Clauses In Natural Science Passages

Adapted from “Humming-Birds: As Illustrating the Luxuriance of Tropical Nature” in Tropical Nature, and Other Essays by Alfred Russel Wallace (1878)

The food of hummingbirds has been a matter of much controversy. All the early writers down to Buffon believed that they lived solely on the nectar of flowers, but since that time, every close observer of their habits maintains that they feed largely, and in some cases wholly, on insects. Azara observed them on the La Plata in winter taking insects out of the webs of spiders at a time and place where there were no flowers. Bullock, in Mexico, declares that he saw them catch small butterflies, and that he found many kinds of insects in their stomachs. Waterton made a similar statement. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of specimens have since been dissected by collecting naturalists, and in almost every instance their stomachs have been found full of insects, sometimes, but not generally, mixed with a proportion of honey. Many of them in fact may be seen catching gnats and other small insects just like fly-catchers, sitting on a dead twig over water, darting off for a time in the air, and then returning to the twig. Others come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose. Mr. Gosse also remarks, ” All the hummingbirds have more or less the habit, when in flight, of pausing in the air and throwing the body and tail into rapid and odd contortions. This is most observable in the Polytmus, from the effect that such motions have on the long feathers of the tail. That the object of these quick turns is the capture of insects, I am sure, having watched one thus engaged pretty close to me.”

The meaning of the underlined phrase “on the wing” is __________.

Possible Answers:

in flight

located on a feather on a bird’s wing

vacationing

having been thrown

without preparation or preplanning

Correct answer:

in flight

Explanation:

The phrase “on the wing” is used in the following sentence in the passage:

“[Other hummingbirds] come out just at dusk, and remain on the wing, now stationary, now darting about with the greatest rapidity, imitating in a limited space the evolutions of the goatsuckers, and evidently for the same end and purpose.”

“On the wing” may initially appear to mean just what it says, “located on a feather on a bird’s wing,’ but considering the way it is used in the passage, this doesn’t make any sense. The sentence describes the hummingbirds “darting about,” and in order for them to do that, they would have to be flying, so you can tell that “on the wing” means “in flight.” None of the other answer choices make sense given the context in which the phrase is used.

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