peteg's blog - noise - books - 2009 04 10 HolldoblerWilson JourneyToTheAnts

Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson: Journey to the Ants

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I finished reading this book, a distillation and popularisation of their more technical The Ants, back on Christmas Day of last year, but have only now found time to write it up. Indeed, it is not worth trying to critically evaluate or summarise; suffice it to say that anyone with an interest in natural science should read it lock-stock.

The highlights were the personal stories of how the authors came to study these insects, and the characteristics of the various ant species, specifically the leaf cutters (farmers of fungi), the weavers (assemblers of leaf nests), the bivouac-building army ants, and the aphid-shepherders. I'd be keen to see any of these in action. The art and photographs are amazing; you can get some idea from this National Geographic article on army ants.

The concept of eusociality is fascinating, and was apparently somewhat of a mystery to Charles Darwin, who intuited that that kind of specialisation depended on strong familial relationships. In essence, the question is why it would ever be more effective to put effort into raising sisters rather than one's own offspring. Work from the 1960s on kin selection explains this in terms of generational gene frequencies, and the author of the papers on the mathematical models, W. D. Hamilton, seems to be of the old naturalist school too. I want to understand this better.

Random things about the ants: