The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness
of Insect Societies
by Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson
(Norton, 522 pages, $55)
There is about as much ant flesh in the world as there is human flesh. Beyond that, ants appear to be the more indispensable creatures. If humans vanished, biodiversity would increase. If ants suddenly went extinct, whole habitats would die, including every rain forest on earth. But the work ants do to sustain other life forms is less interesting to biologists Bert Hölldobler and E.O. Wilson than how that work is accomplished. The Pulitzer Prize–winning co-auhors of 1990’s The Ants claim that humans still have much to learn about social insects. Given that ant colonies are almost exclusively female and constantly at war, ants don’t make perfect role models. But they can teach us plenty about group efficiencies and the origins of altruistic behavior.
Reading Wilson and Hölldobler is like accompanying a pair of anthropologists “reporting on a highly developed, newly discovered civilization” in your own backyard, said M.G. Lord in the Los Angeles Times. Bees, wasps, and termites all make cameos in their new study of social insects, but the book’s “undisputed stars” are the advanced ant species that construct elaborate subterranean fortresses, create cemeteries for their dead, and employ nature’s “most complex communication system” outside human language. The authors’ own prose is consistently “accessible, robust, and witty.” Even so, the glossary they’ve included is a boon because the main text is never “dumbed down for lay readers.”
The title refers to a century-old idea that an insect colony functions as a single organism, said Anthony Doerr in The Boston Globe. Reviving the concept allows Hölldobler and Wilson to “invoke many of the most interesting questions in biology,” including whether altruism is triggered by a desire to preserve a genetic inheritance or to preserve a functioning social structure. The great strength—and the great flaw—of ant civilization is that no single member can make a decision for itself when faced with the unexpected, said Christine Kenneally in Slate.com. Only future crises will reveal whether that makes them better suited for survival than we are.