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The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies Hardcover – November 17, 2008

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The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies + Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration + The Ants
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Social insects such as ants have long fascinated renowned biologist Wilson. With colleague Hölldobler, he presents this integrated look at social insects, from the genetic to the colony levels of analysis. Incorporating the evolutionary record into the text, the authors alert readers to the relentlessness of environmental pressures on everything that an insect is or does. The authors particularly theorize the adaptive advantages of a species whose members exist as part of a social organization, which emerges in their discussions of preconditions necessary for a transition from an individual to a communal life-cycle. This transition is rare in nature; adding to the amazement is the complexity of insect colonies, to which the authors devote most of their generously illustrated work. Divining how social insects divide into castes of workers, soldiers, and queens; explaining how castes communicate; and placing these successful species within the larger web of life, Wilson and Hölldobler, albeit fond of technical nomenclature, bring an alienlike world to the notice of interested nonscientists, in a volume with long-term library value. --Gilbert Taylor

About 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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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (November 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393067041
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393067040
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 1.5 x 10.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #99,071 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

86 of 86 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on December 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
We look at animals in natural domains and marvel at how well they get by, how they integrate themselves into the world, exploit their niches, and leave progeny. Anyone who examines social insects, like ants and bees, has to be particularly impressed. In fact, insect societies have been a particular inspiration to those who would like to see human societies operate just as smoothly, with every member dutifully fulfilling a role to the benefit of the larger group. Liberal and conservative politicians have turned to ants and bees for inspiration and for metaphors, but that's just because they don't know how basically weird such societies are. Let them read _The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies_ (Norton) by Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson. The authors are among the world's experts on ants, and in 1991 their book _The Ants_ won a Pulitzer Prize, so it is not surprising that ants get most of the pages here. Bees and termites are also covered, but naked mole rats, the closest mammalian example of this sort of colony life, are barely mentioned. This is a big book, beautifully produced with color pictures of insects in their home environments and drawings to show how they move, signal, and reply. It is also dense with serious scientific descriptions. It is not dumbed down for the lay reader, and could do for a textbook in an entomology course. Nonetheless, the descriptions are clear and the scholarship is deep, and any reader with an interest in science or nature will come away with an admiration for these strange societies and for the intensive research that is solving many of their mysteries.Read more ›
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55 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Herbert Gintis on December 13, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This beautiful volume shows the amazing amount that naturalists have learned about eusocial insect species since the publication of the authors' Pulitzer Prize winning volume, The Ants, in 1990. The book is accessible to the lay reader, except for some introductory chapters that require some knowledge of genetics and population biology. These chapters can simply be skipped without compromising the understanding of other chapters. Both because of its breadth and the huge number of references to the professional literature, this book will likely become a reference for many researchers in sociobiology, including those whose specialty is eusocial insects.

From a theoretical standpoint, this book champions two ideas that E. O. Wilson has vigorously supported despite considerable criticism by biologists and social theorists. The first is that all social species share many traits in common, so that there is room for a special field, which Wilson calls "sociobiology," that charts the commonalities and differences among social species. This notion, laid out in Wilson's brilliant 1975 volume by that name, was greeted with scorn and contumely by social theorists who vehemently objected to including human sociality as a mere variant of biological sociality. The ensuing debate is brilliantly documented in Ullica Segerstrale, Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate (Oxford University Press, 2001). Of course, sociobiology has withstood the criticism of the ignorant and the intolerant, and is now a fully flourishing field.

More recently, E. O. Wilson has become an ardent supporter of group selection, which holds that Darwinian selection occurs on multiple levels, including the gene, the individual, and in species with a high level of sociality, on the level of the group itself.
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45 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Andrew on January 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This is a fascinating book, but one that could be improved. However, the positive (FOR, below) much outweighs the negative (AGAINST, below).

FOR: This book is full of interesting material, most of which is well explained. It follows how eusocial insects construct complex insect societies that display apparent group intelligence by using only a small number of chemical signals and stereotyped responses. It seeks to understand how such complex societies came to exist, based on the competing interactions of selection between indivuals within the colony, and selection between colonies or group selection. It reviews a wealth of material on how such societies operate from relatively simple colonies to the vast and elaborate super-colonies of the leaf cutter ants. Although the shortest chapter, I was fascinated by the evolution of the ants, particularly the Sphecomyrminae, an extinct early ant with properties both of an ant and a wasp. The graphics are stunning, both the line drawings and the photography. Visually it is one of the most beautiful books I have read for some time. The images of concrete casts of ant nests are a revelation.

AGAINST: The authors often over-complicate. For instance, in one section ("anonymity and specificity of chemical signals" p270) the simple idea that some signals are widely used and recognized by many ants in a colony while others are more specific, even down to the recognition of individuals, is introduced by comparison with artificial intelligence and "class variables" and "instance variables". This is a pretentious sledgehammer used to crack a nut (and the supporting reference dated 1984 is very old). The chapter on communication is far too long, and could have been broken down into more manageable chapters.
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