Ants At Work: How An Insect Society Is Organized

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9780684857336: Ants At Work: How An Insect Society Is Organized

A scientific tour de force, Deborah Gordon's "Ants at Work" takes us to the amazing world of an ant society and reveals a new and original understanding of how these tiny animals get the work of the colony done. Gordon's surprising and deceptively simple message that the queen is not in charge represents a fundamental shift in modern biology. It is no less than a revolution in our thinking on the mystery of natural organization. Based on the author's seventeen years of research on harvester ants in the Arizona desert, "Ants at Work" overturns all standard ideas of insect society hierarchy. Gordon shows that an ant colony operates without any central control and that no ant has power over another. Yet the ant colony, harmoniously performs extremely complex tasks; including nest building, navigation, foraging, food storage, tending the young, garbage collection, and on occasion, even war. She shows that there are no territorial borders in the way we understand them because ants are always ready to change. Ants also switch from one task to another, which undermines the standard view that insect societies are run on a caste system. Gordon explores how ants use simple, local information to make the decisions that generate the complex behavior of colonies. New colonies are born, struggle to occupy a foraging area, grow larger, start to reproduce, and then settle in among their lifelong neighbors. Superb drawings of ants and maps directly from Gordon's field notes enrich the experience of reading this breakthrough work. In these maps we discover what ants do when a neighboring colony disappears behind an enclosure and what they do when their neighbors suddenly reappear. We seewhere different tasks of ant daily life are performed. Through Gordon's wry sense of humor and lucid voice, we experience the delights and frustrations of spending blistering days in the desert between the Chiricahua and Peloncillo mountains of Arizona, pursuing the mystery of the fascinating behavior of "Pogonomyrmex." By focusing on chaotic patterns of behavior instead of searching for fixed universal laws, Gordon signals the future of scientific investigation. She boldly contends that ant communication is a model of how brains, immune systems, and the natural world as a whole organize themselves. Her discoveries have profound implications for anyone who is interested in how organizations work, from biologists and physicists to business leaders and pioneers of cyberspace. "Ants at Work" brings to the natural world the insights of a new era in the science of life.

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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 M. Gordon, Ph.D., studied at Oberlin College, Stanford University, and Duke University, and researched at Harvard University and the University of Oxford before joining the faculty at Stanford, where she is Associate Professor of Biological Sciences. She lives in Redwood City, California.

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Deborah Gordon
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