Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized

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9780393321326: Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized

Individual ants manage their incredibly complex colonies with no one in charge―how do they do it?

Ants have long been regarded as the most interesting of the social insects. With their queens and celibate workers, these intriguing creatures have captured the imaginations of scientists and children alike for generations. Yet until now, no one had studied intensely the life cycle of the ant colony as a whole. An ant colony has a life cycle of about fifteen years―it is born, matures, and dies. But the individual ants that inhabit the colony live only one year. So how does this system of tunnels and caves in the dirt become so much more than the sum of its parts?

Leading ant researcher Deborah Gordon takes the reader to the Arizona desert to explore this question. The answer involves the emerging insights of the new science of complexity, and contributes to understanding the evolution of life itself.

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Review:

For as long as humans have been telling stories about animals, ants have played the role of hard-working, slavish, mindless drudge, the kind of creature that busily prepares for the future without resting or reflecting. But at least one species, writes Stanford University professor Deborah Gordon in this engaging study, slips free of our stereotypes. The harvester ant, an abundant denizen of the Southwestern deserts, seems to live in a society that is based on something like mutual aid, far from the six-legged dictatorships of fable--and, indeed, far from the human models that storytellers and ethologists alike have imposed on ant congregations. Gordon wonders, "If the ants don't work like a miniature human society, how does a group of rather inept little creatures create a colony that gets things done?" She proposes a number of answers in her wide-ranging book, one of which is this: ants get things done by accident, by experimenting with and constantly testing their surroundings to see what there is to eat, and who else is trying to get at it. Gordon writes with good humor about the daily work of studying insects in the intense heat of the desert, noting, "Over the years I have evolved a costume that includes a long-sleeved shirt, a cap with a kind of curtain around its lower edge, and the largest sunglasses I can find. I look rather like an insect myself." Readers approaching her book will find that they learn a lot about ants in the process--and also a lot about how field scientists get things done themselves. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Deborah Gordon is associate professor of biology at Stanford University.

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Editorial: W. W. Norton & Company (2000)
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Deborah Gordon
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