- Paperback: 192 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (October 17, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393321320
- ISBN-13: 978-0393321326
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 7.8 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 18 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,835,474 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Ants at Work: How an Insect Society is Organized 1st Edition
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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 --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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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. My only quibble would be to say that I would like to read a book on ants with a wider focus, especially on the Argentine ants that dominate the urban environment here in southern California. Additionally it would be nice to know how the organization of harvester ant society compares and contrasts with that of other species.
Deborah Gordon spent 17 summers virtually memorizing the same 25 acres in Arizona with her students, fooling around with about 300 colonies of harvester ants. She chose them for the scientific reason that they were big enough to see without glasses.
They are efficient? On page 105, Gordon includes a delightful excerpt from Mark Twain about ants. "They pick up something too large, go over obstructions instead of around, when and if they finally drag the prize into the nest, half the time it's worthless and has to be dragged off by midden workers," - the garbage collectors of antdom.
They are subservient to the queen? "Look to the ant, thou sluggard; Consider her ways and be wise: Which having no chief, overseer, or ruler, Provides her meat in the summer, And gathers her food in the harvest." Proverbs 6:6. Gordon agrees with the good book...there is no guiding force. They just seem to know what to do and frequently change jobs as needed.
They have an elaborate means of communication? Not that we can see. Their eyesight is poor and they communicate by touching antennaes, and by sensing perhaps 12 different chemicals on each other.
At 4:30 AM Gordon et al get up, eat breakfast, and take a 20 minute trip out of the mountains to the site, where they set up the experiment they have agonized over, or analyze the one in progress. Before noon, as the heat sets in, they go back up the mountain and the ants go back into their mound - their foraging done, and the ant watchers' practical jokes accomplished and recorded. The rest of the day is spent tabulating and analyzing data and dreaming up new tricks in order to tease out more secrets of anthood.
Gordon's process is a good example of the tedious, meticulous work of science. As she developed her data of the mindless pseudo-efficiency of an ant colony, a correllation occured to me about the self organization of stem cells as they differentiate, specialize, and mindlessly create a living entity, guided by only partially known processes (admittedly not a perfect analogy).
This is a good read, an easy read and refreshingly out of the ordinary.