The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societiesby Bert Holldobler, Edward O. Wilson
The Pulitzer Prize-winning authors of The Ants render the extraordinary lives of the social insects in this visually spectacular volume.The Superorganism promises to be one of the most important scientific works published in this decade. Coming eighteen years after the publication of The Ants, this new volume expands our knowledge of the social insects (among them, ants, bees, wasps, and termites) and is based on remarkable research conducted mostly within the last two decades. These superorganismsa tightly knit colony of individuals, formed by altruistic cooperation, complex communication, and division of laborrepresent one of the basic stages of biological organization, midway between the organism and the entire species. The study of the superorganism, as the authors demonstrate, has led to important advances in our understanding of how the transitions between such levels have occurred in evolution and how life as a whole has progressed from simple to complex forms. Ultimately, this book provides a deep look into a part of the living world hitherto glimpsed by only a very few.
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Ant lifestyles are amazingly diverse and include slave-makers, fungus-growers, and nomadic-predators. Most of our knowledge of their intricate navigation and communication systems was discovered only in the past four decades, and many of these discoveries were made, either separately or together, by two ant biology pioneers, Hölldobler and Wilson. Since their Pulitzer Prize-winning 1990 volume, The Ants, much has been learned about the complexities of colony structure and evolutionary relationships within and among ant groups. In this new title, the authors have outdone themselves in synthesizing that disparate information, explaining how a complex colony self-organizes, self-regulates, and is able to function as smoothly as if it were a single, superorganism. In ten chapters, written in a style both accurate and accessible to lay readers, the authors cover 97 topics, including the origin and early radiation of ants, chemical and visual communication, superorganism structure, and how nest architecture is achieved. While the superorganism concept is not new, it has never been stated explicitly or explored on such a grand scale. Recommended for high school, academic, and public libraries and interested lay readers. [See Prepub Alert, LJ8/08.]
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Meet the Author
Bert Hölldobler is Foundation Professor at Arizona State University and the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. He lives in Arizona and Germany.
Edward O. Wilson is widely recognized as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists. The author of more than twenty books, including The Creation, The Social Conquest of Earth, The Meaning of Human Existence, and Letters to a Young Scientist, Wilson is a professor emeritus at Harvard University. The winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he lives in Lexington, Massachusetts.
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In 'The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect Societies' Holldobler and Wilson have written an appendix to their previous book 'The Ants', a variation of the 'annuals' that classic encyclopedias published to add new information to an existing edition. The book's primary role is to present new discoveries in the study of ants, with an emphasis on the increased understanding of how their colonies are able to coordinate the actions of tens, hundreds or even thousands of organisms to function as parts of a single individual; a superorganism. The single most striking discovery is the sophistication of the signals that ants use to communicate with one another. For example, new research is showing that they often use multiple scents in combination to mark the importance of a trail or to produce different responses in their siblings. Ants are also capable of having very different reactions to a scent message depending on its context; an alarm pheromone combined with the scent of ants from outside its colony will make an ant seek out and attack the intruders, while the same pheromone in an obstructed tunnel will set her to clearing away the debris. Although ants are understandably the book's primary subject, its title indicates that it is about insect societies, and it does discuss most of the other social insects to a degree. There is a fair amount of material on bees in general and honeybees in particular, such as the effect of age on a bee's role in the hive or how they measure how far they travel when flying. But this only makes up a small portion of the book, with perhaps one page on bees for every ten on ants. Wasps get even less attention, rating only a few pages of material. It is the near-absence of information on termites that really puzzles me. I cannot believe that there is so little research on termites that Holldobler and Wilson can only manage a few paragraphs on termite diversity and behavior; they have such a substantial impact in the environments in which they live, and they are such destructive pests that there must be a significant body of research into them. I suspect that the reason they receive such short shrift in this book is that termites don't lend themselves to sociobiological analysis in the same way as ants, bees and wasps do. Ants, bees and wasps are haplodiploid; males develop from unfertilized eggs, females from fertilized ones. This means that a female is more closely related to her sisters than she is to her mother, father, brothers or her own offspring. The best way to propagate her genes is therefore to help her mother raise more sisters, giving them a natural bias towards social behavior. The termites, on the other hand are conventionally diploid (all individuals have two sets of genes), and the members of a termite colony are male and female in equal ratio regardless of caste. I believe that this makes termites the exception that tests the rules of sociobiology and they are therefore a delicate subject for the discipline's founder, co-author Edward O. Wilson. Regardless of its shortcomings I find 'The Superorganism' worth recommending. If you already own Holldobler and Wilson's 'The Ants' this book is a must-buy, updating the original volume for the twenty-first century. The only readers who will be disappointed in this book are those seeking information on insects other than ants, as the other social insects receive little or no discussion here.
The concept of groups of organisms--sometimes vast numbers--functioning as one 'superorganism' is very engaging to me, but the treatment of the topic was somewhat less accessible to the general reader than the beautiful illustrations suggested on a stand-up perusal in the store. The authors are unquestioned experts on the topic, as demonstrated by their progressive descriptions of facts becoming hypotheses, being tested and debated. They are quite clear, if you read carefully, on the difference between their impressions, other impressions, and facts, which would be perfect for someone beginning to really dive into this topic. I, on the other hand, would have been a little happier with a more straightforward walk down the path of the authors' concepts, with an occasional comment and reference to possible disagreements. Overall, I got more than I expected from this one, but certainly am glad for the opportunity to pick it up whenever I have a discretionary hour or so to exercise my brain.
This is a must read and have book for any ant enthusiast. It is not an easy read but is a good summary of the curent state of ant studies (myrmecology) with an eye especially to the concept of the superorganism, a concept first introduced by W. M. Wheeler in the last century. The research has been nicely pulled together and explained and the implications are made clear. Nicely illustrated and with good references.
Superorganism has beautiful photos, interesting information and covers a broad range of topics. Superorganism is also the most poorly edited and organized book I've ever come across. This book has absolutely no rhyme or reason to its layout or in the presentation of its chapters. It's a series of conceptual tableaus where nothing is connected in any meaningful fashion; terms are defined chapters after their initial usage in the text. This terrible layout could be forgiven, had the authors or the editors included a decent map, i.e., a useful index or glossary. Unfortunately, these parts of the book showed as little care and thought in their construction as the rest of book. The glossary contains words which are common everyday terms which can be found in any dictionary. The glossary does not define the unique, context specific, scientific terms or jargon used throughout the text. In science, each field of study has its own specific and precise meanings for otherwise everyday words, as well as its own lexicon of words found nowhere else. Without knowing these words and their meanings, the text is ambiguous. I am not an entomologist specializing in ants. I do not know the terminology regarding their anatomy. A clear summary of this terminology would have been welcome, to say the least. I originally started this review with 4 stars, but now that I'm remembering the sheer irritation of trying to read this book, I've revised that. At best this book reads like a rough draft of a neophyte author. It has great information and many interesting things in it, but it is not a good book. E.O. Wilson has a reputation as a competent author. I've not read any of his other books, but based on this book, I'd argue against that claim. (At least I got my copy signed by Holldobler himself when I bought it, so at least there's that...)
You will think twice before stepping on an ant after reading this book. This book starts to show us the complexity of the Order Hymenptera. If you are in any Biology field you must have this book in your library.