Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration
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57 of 58 people found the following review helpful
This book is an exploration into all aspects of ant life, written for general readers. Holldobler and Wilson, who wrote the massive scientific reference volume, The Ants, felt that there was also a demand for a less formal book about ants that ordinary readers might enjoy reading from cover-to-cover. In this book, they describe not only the lives of ants and ant colonies, but also how their own interests in ants developed. The book covers such topics as the dominance of ants, the life and death of the colony, the colony as a superorganism, ant communication, relations between ants within and between colonies, ancient ants, ant parasites, army ants, and ants and the environment. They also include a brief section on how to study ants. The book is illustrated both black-and white photos and sets of color photographic plates. There is an index, but surprisingly, there is no bibliography or recommendations for further reading; presumably, their main recommendation would be to consult their reference volume, The Ants.

The first chapter in the book, The Dominance of Ants, stood out the most for me. In this chapter, the authors note that ants are overwhelmingly the dominant species on earth. By weight, the world ant population equals the world human population, and represents half or more of the world's insect biomass. These ten thousand trillion creatures are spread throughout the world's habitats, from the Amazon to Finland, from deserts to rain forests. With that in mind, the study of ants is clearly well-worth taking up. Why are ants so populous and successful? As the authors argue, one reason is their social nature. They put the survival of the colony above their own individual survival. Nevertheless, through quirks in their reproductive behavior, this cooperative behavior still maximizes the potential for their own genetic material to be passed on to future generations. Just because they are social, however, doesn't mean that all is peaceful within the colony between individual ants, as Holldobler and Wilson point out. These topics and many others are described in language that is very accessible to general readers. I found myself not only better informed about ants after reading this book, but also with a much greater sense of respect for such remarkable creatures.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEon January 25, 2001
There are only a few writers who truly capture the natural world's complex structure, presenting it in a readable manner. Edward Wilson is one of these. Here, he's joined by Bert Holldobler in picturing one of our world's more enigmatic creatures - the ants. This book is a joy to read, whether you seriously study evolution or simply want a grander picture of life's mysteries. This book is a collector's item in reviewing what is known about ants and calling on students to consider how much remains to be studied.
The ants are one of the dominant forms of life on this planet. They've spread to nearly every environmental niche, adapting their habits and colony structure successfully. Wilson and Holldobler willingly convey their awe at this variety to anyone wishing to share it. Among the amazing accounts they relate, perhaps two stand out. The finding of the earliest known fossil specimens by a New Jersey family, and the night-foraging ants of Australia. Holldobler and Wilson's journeys have taken them to remote sites around the planet. They have a fine sense of how to bring the reader into their camps and excursions, sharing their discoveries and their tribulations.
Along the way, we learn how ants form their colonies, breed, forage, make war and enslave or absorb their fellows or other creatures. "Ants all look the same to the naked eye" they state, then show what a fallacy it is to continue believing that outlook. Beginning as solitary ground wasps, the ants have become one of the most complex social creatures in life. Their colonies range from simple bivouacs to huge structures. They can remove tonnes of soil to build a nest or range over extensive territories, terrifying even people with waves of migrating insects.
Anyone seeking to understand even a little of the diversity of life should own this book.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on July 17, 1999
This book is easy to read. Could easily be used by elementary, middle school, and secondary school teachers to prepare a number of interesting lessons and scientific projects. Not only can insects (ants in particular, of course) but society, community, non-linguistic communication, evolution, and putting the universe into a size perspective provides many areas for class discussion. "Ants are oblivious to human existence." An incredible statement that will spark great conversation. Ants do not even know we are here! And they wont miss us when we are gone. After we have destroyed our natural habitat, they will continue to live in their microwildernesses. Text also provides a brief chapter on how to collect and observe ants and ant colonies. I am a language teacher but found reading this text simple and interesting.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 1999
This book was pleasant and rewarding to read. I came to it via The Naturalist, then Consilience, next Biophilia. It's as well written as each of these, and it shares many broad themes with them. It's different, of course, in the narrow focus, and that yields a different kind of pleasure. Most remarkable to me were the following: the extreme refinements in co-evolution of certain symbiotic species, the genetic basis of the ant's social behavior, the power of Darwinian theory to explain social behavior, and simply the importance of ants. Another pleasure of the book is the occasional insights it offers into the authors' work habits and experimental methods. The book is easily accessible to the lay person. In fact, it's an easy read. The other books of his mentioned above are also excellent.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
I have the author's award winning, "The Ants" and it is truly the landmark book on all things Ants. But it is big and difficult for a non-scientist to read through. I recommend it, nonetheless. This book, however, is a wonderful distillation of the key points from the bigger book. It was specificilly written to engage a non-expert on the wonderful and amazing creatures called Ants. They succeed admirably in their attempt to impart good science and information about ants, but they succeed even better in their attempt to write an engaging, thrilling, intellectually stimulating book. Everyone who has the slightest appreciation of nature and love of learning will like this book. Adults can read it straight through, younger readers can sample at will, and younger children will love the pictures and short "readings to". This is one of the best non-technical science books I've read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Journey to the Ants is a shorter version of the authors' monumental The Ants (1990), a 732-page tome aimed at professional biologists with a lot of technical language and a clear encyclopedic intent. This book, as Holldobler and Wilson explain in the Preface, is of "a more manageable length, with less technical language and with an admitted and unavoidable bias toward those topics and species on which we have personally worked."

It is a terrific book, lavishly illustrated with many color plates, line drawings, black and white drawings, photos, etc. Especially wonderful are the color prints of paintings by John D. Dawson showing ants in various activities. His style reminds me a bit of M.C. Esher. Also notable are the many photos taken by Holldobler and Wilson during their many travels and studies. They are both renowned experts on ants around the world.

The text is both informative and entertaining. Wilson in particular is a world class science writer as well as a great scientist, and his clarity of expression and enthusiasm show through. The chapters examine and illustrate how ants live in their colonies, how they hunt prey, tend aphid "cattle," cultivate fungi, raid other ant colonies; how they fight and how they reproduce. Other chapters focus on particular species, like army ants or leaf cutter ants, or "strange" ants. Still other chapters show how ants communicate especially through pheromones and touch. There is some theory on ant origins (about 100-120 million years ago) and their evolution and present distribution. I was particularly interested in and appalled by both the way some ants are parasites and how they themselves are exploited by parasites. Our esteemed authors show how ants, for all their power and evolutionary success, can be the most naive victims of beetles, flies, butterfly larva, etc. simply because they can be fooled by smells that mimic those of the colony and/or because they can be given irresistible concoctions of food or what might be called "drugs" that make them passive and acceptive of insects that will eat their eggs and larva. They are also tricked into feeding strangers on the trail and alien larva in the colony nest!

I purposely first read a couple of other books on ants (The World of Ants: A Science-Fiction Universe (1970) by Remy Chauvin, and Ants (1977) by M.V. Brian), written by myrmecologists of an earlier generation so as to be able to better appreciate this famous work. But you need not do that. Journey to the Ants is eminently accessible to just about any literate person.

While reading I had some thoughts (as Wilson famously has had) on the differences and similarities between ant societies and human ones. Ants are not governed as we are (and as was once thought) in any way by a central authority. (They are influenced by the queen's pheromones and her behavior.) Instead ants are examples of "swarm intelligence," that is purposeful and coordinated behavior that arises from each individual doing what comes naturally to that individual. This sort of intelligence was just beginning to be appreciated when Holldobler and Wilson wrote this book. The phrase "swarm intelligence" does not appear anywhere in the book, and yet it is clear that our present understanding of how this intelligence works was gleaned in part from the work of biologists and ethologists like Holldobler and Wilson.

Ants are famous for doing human-like things that no other animals or few can do, such as gardening, tending herds, making war, and constructing elaborate living spaces. It is usually said that ants do it from pure instinct whereas we use our intelligence and the experience. Humans and ants cannot be defined independently of their respective cultures. What I wonder is, is it an artificiality to say that their intelligence, spread out as it is among the individuals and their genetic endowments, is fundamentally different from our own? Clearly ants are limited in what they can construct, what they can understand, and what tools they can make and use. I read somewhere that ants never developed fire because no ant could get close enough to a sustainable fire to tend it.

A striking conclusion is that perhaps the real difference between us comes from our ability to grow a million times bigger in size which allows us not only to tend fires, but to develop brains large enough to handle abstract thought such as in language, which further allows us to develop and share ideas, concepts, practices, and all the other aspects of our culture in a way that is impossible for ants, whose brain size is limited by their anatomy.

So, although ants were here long before we arrived, and although they probably will be here long after we are gone, it is impossible to say which life form is the more successful. We do have at present the capability, which ants do not, of enhancing our ability to survive through genetic engineering and the development of biologically friendly machines, and even the ability to migrate away from this earth so that our genes and ourselves are not in one basket, so to speak. Should a planet-sterilizing event hit the earth, we could be on Mars and still survive.

But then there is this insidious thought: perhaps the ants, like our resident microbes, will find a way to come with us!

Don't miss this book. You are in for a treat.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2004
I read someone say that this book could be for kids. While I suppose that kids could read it, some of it would certainly be over their heads like the jokes: "When Marx came up with his theories, he just had the wrong species" (referring to the Marxist behavior of ants.)
Anyway, this book is fun and interesting and EO Wilson has a talent for telling good stories. Ants are simply fascinating creatures and this will leave you wanting to read more about them.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 9, 2006
I had often wanted to read "The Ants", a monograph by the authors of this book. However, my interest in ants wasn't great enough to justify the effort of reading it, or the expense for that matter. When I found this book there was no question I was going to read it. I wasn't disappointed.

There was a lot of information about ants in general. A sample of the information is: when they first appear in the fossil record, how many species of ant there are, how males being haploid is related to ants being social, the diverse environments ants live in, the huge percentage of the Earth's biomass they represent, the vast difference in size between species (or even within a species), how they forage, how they fight, how they mate and how they nest. This material makes it clear that to understand life of Earth, you need to know something about not only insects in general, but ants in particular.

Throughout the book individual species are described, but this usually wasn't in too much detail. The focus is definitely ants as a whole. As far as I can tell the species chosen tended to have more extreme features (e.g. large size, small colony size, big jaws, etc.).

The book includes charming stories of the authors' personal encounters with ants. It also includes many photographs, electron microscope images and drawings. Some of these were quite stunning.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it was not only informative, but it increased my interest in ants, I will be reading "The Ants".
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 28, 2012
"Ants: Their Social Structure, Fighting & Mating."

"Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration" by Bert Holldobler & Edward O. Wilson, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994. ISBN 0-674-48526-2, PB 228 Pgs., 9 1/4" x 8" x 3/4" format on quality glossy media to accommodate hundreds of both full paged exacting, colored photographic images, reproductions of insect paintings, drawings, sketches, plus macro-photography & electron microscopy B/W photos, each accompanied by a short but concise explanatory caption providing informative detail of subject or organism photographed. All total there are 15 chapters and a valuable chapter on "How to Study Ants".

The authors are giants amongst entomologists' studying ants, termed "myrmecologists". Wilson has won 2 Pulitzer prizes, one shared with Holldobler. Their 1990 monograph "Ants" remains a classic, has 732 pages and weighs over 7 ½ #! It was not too unusual, then, to see them both illustrated in the present book, countries apart, wielding their butterfly nets as teenagers! Both of then garnered Professorships at Harvard University.

The first chapters provide census count of insects and ants, the latter numbering about ten thousand trillion, each weighing 1-5 mgm with a combined weight equal to the human population. It is estimated there are 9,500 named ant species - and with experience myrmecologists come able to recognize hundreds on sight, small as they are. Using microscopes and electron microscopy, minute differences become evident. Ant are characterized as social insects by demonstrating 3 biological traits: adults care for their young, 2 or more generations live in the same nest, and colony members are divided into reproductive "royal" and non-reproductive "worker" castes and are one of 4 "eusocial" groups: some bees (Halictidae, Apidae), wasps (Vespidae, Sphecidae), and all termites (order Isoptera). Ants are in order Hymenoptera (family Formicidae).

Separate chapters are devoted to development of the colony, ant communication (pheromones, sound, & touch), and other chapters detail ant-warfare, territorial tournaments and conflict & dominance. Intriguing were solving points as to the origin of cooperation and structuring the superorgansim. It was discovered ants were easily fooled by some social parasites breaking the code to permit victimization of the hosts.
Intriguing is the description of commoner trophobionts as Aphids, and the antics and practices of Army ants and the Odontomachus, Pseumomyrex, and the Pheidoles.

The last chapter describes how to study ants by catching, culturing, transporting, and garnering the necessary equipment. All total, this book is relatively easy and interesting to read, and contains a wealth of information and invaluable pictures assembled by two of the foremost ant experts in the world.

finis
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2006
Amazing stories. My kids and grandkids enjoyed it as much as I did. Even the little kids were attracted to the pictures and wanted us to tell them more. My respect for ants zoomed, reading this. Also my techniques for keeping them OUT of my house!
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