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Ants At Work: How An Insect Society Is Organized Hardcover – October 6, 1999


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (October 6, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684857332
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684857336
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 5.8 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #672,721 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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

From Publishers Weekly

"The basic mystery about ant colonies," begins Gordon, who teaches at Stanford, "is that there is no management." How, then, do colonies exhibit such high degrees of organization? To answer that question, Gordon has spent 17 summers studying harvester ants in a "small patch" of the Arizona desert. This report on that research is an accessible but often dry mix of science writing, memoir and speculation. "The first time I did this experiment, I used five sets of neighboring colonies. Each set included one enclosed colony and three or four neighbors...." Thoreau this isn't, but neither is it pure number-crunching. Gordon invigorates her text through bone-clean prose and a welcome sense of humor (in long-sleeved shirt, curtained cap and big sunglasses, "I look rather like an insect myself"). Gordon's experiments, which concerned numerous aspects of colony life, including their growth and functioning, and relations between colonies, have added greatly to our understanding of ants. Who knew, for instance, that, among ants that work outside the nest, a nest maintenance worker might switch tasks to patrol or forage, but that new maintenance workers come from inside the nest? Probably no one, until Gordon, as she recalls, was able to beat the desert heat and to mark ants, for observational tracking, by slowing them down using an ice cream-making machine. Gordon solved the opening mystery by finding that ant colonies exhibit behavior similar to that of other complex systems: "Fairly simple units generate complicated global behavior." She explains that it is the "pattern of interactions" among ants, "not the signal in the interaction itself [that] produces the effect." So, she concludes in this crystalline work, by studying ants, "we see how the layers of a natural system fit together." Drawings throughout. (Oct..-- produces the effect." So, she concludes in this crystalline work, by studying ants, "we see how the layers of a natural system fit together." Drawings throughout. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

After reading this fascinating book, you may be tempted to answer "Yes."
Theodore A. Rushton
She's obviously not a novelist, but her writing style is easy to read, to the point, and displays a sense of humor and good-naturedness.
monkuboy
Thank you for an insightful and wonderful story that makes life worth living.
honohono7 of extracashfordoctors.com

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Belina Mejias on November 28, 1999
Format: Hardcover
My science teacher had this book out in the laboratory, along with several other books and guides that are current and invited us to spend that period browsing and reading. I checked this book out and also the one on Nabokov's butterfly work-- Nabokov's Blues-- for Thanksgiving holiday. Ms. Gordon's book is much better than a textbook or fieldguide because it provides an exciting story about ants and how they work. The vivid desciptions personalize ants and make it more like a book verson of "A Bug's Life" movie-- but SERIOUS about the science; so is the story about Nabokov the scientist, which reads with a plot. Ants at Work was easy to read, extremely interesting and probably taught me more about ants than I could have learned from a textbook or lab manual. If it had one drawback against the Nabokov story it was only that Nabokov's exciting work on butterflies, as told by Mr. Johnson and Mr. Coates, had an ongoing plot-- about the famous writer's life and other scientists too. But, Ms. Gordon's book was fascinating and I thought my teacher's idea to have us learn about ants and butterflies by reading these more exciting books was a great idea. Both Ants at Work and Nabokov's Blues are perhaps best suited for adults after high school but I had no trouble with either book and sure felt I learned more about insects reading these books than I would have studying a dry textbook. It was a good suggestion by our teacher for the holidays.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By monkuboy VINE VOICE on December 21, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I used to collect ants when I was younger, putting them into fishbowls filled with dirt to watch them build their nests. I think the various behaviors they exhibit are fascinating and I find it quite enjoyable to read Ms. Gordon's book. She's obviously not a novelist, but her writing style is easy to read, to the point, and displays a sense of humor and good-naturedness. I agree with the earlier reviews- this is a lot easier and more interesting to read than a dry textbook, yet it is an excellent source of information about the particular types of ants she studied. If you've never given much thought to these little creatures, reading this book will give you an appreciation of what an amazing world exists within an ant colony and its environs.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Ken on July 12, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I'm a bit surprised by some of the negative comments about this book, because they seem to have missed its point. This isn't a formal presentation of the author's research. It therefore lacks many details, does not review the full range of other relevant literature, and it has not been honed by a committee of reviewers. What it DOES do is to give the reader who doesn't know anything about ants a very readable narrative account of how one might go about finding out something about them. This book is as much about how to apply the scientific method to the messy world of animal behavior as it is about ants in particular. Gordon's account of how to do that seems to have been mistaken by some as self indulgence. If you're looking for a detailed account of ants, you should see Holldobler and Wilson's 700+ page "The Ants." If you want an introduction to what's interesting about ants and how people go about studying them, Gordon's book is a great read.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 13, 2000
Format: Hardcover
A pleasant little book almost exclusively about harvester ants of the American southwest. Gordon makes a special effort to be readable and to avoid jargon. There are a few charts and some drawings. She shows how harvester ants perform four kinds of work, foraging, patrolling, nest maintenance, and midden work (feeding the refuse pile). She gives details from her experiments in the Arizona desert where she studied harvester ant colonies for seventeen summers.
The fascinating thing about ants is that they are able to organize and accomplish their work without a central authority telling them what to do. Gordon's main purpose is to understand how they do this. She shows that pheromone messages and contacts among individual ants lead to a kind of group knowledge that is reflected in individual behavior. Each ant makes its own choice about what to do at any given time based on clues it gets from its environment, either its nest mates, the weather, or other changing circumstances, or from contacts with ants from other colonies. She shows that the life cycle of a colony and its overall behavior can be seen as that of an organism composed of individuals analogous (but without central management) to an animal made up of individual cells. The colony has a life span, and during that span behaves differently depending upon its age. Because disrupting the underground nests of the ants would alter their behavior, we don't get a very clear picture of how the nest appears. Gordon implies that nests maintained in labs are not the same thing. She makes it clear that such ants also behave differently than ants in a natural setting.
This is a fine book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By honohono7 of extracashfordoctors.com on May 24, 2002
Format: Paperback
I LOVE this book. What a rare peek over the shoulder of a true scientist with an inquisitive mind and appreciation for the art and beauty of science, applied to these tiny but incredibly interesting creatures. Within the same nest reside 5 or more ant types based on function. In that nest, some live up to 20 years while others "don't live long enough to EVER eat." I will never look at ants the same. Thank you for an insightful and wonderful story that makes life worth living.
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