Top positive review
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Interesting and Compelling
on January 13, 2006
When the authors of this book wrote their Pulitzer Prize winning book The Ants a few years before this one, between them they had dedicated almost 75 years to the study of ants. That tome is weighty in every respect, and a little formidable. This book was written a few years later to distill the categorical information of the former into more accessible and digestible form.
The book addresses the following issues : Why study ants? How are ants organized? How do they communicate? How do they cooperate? What influence do they have on their environment. The answer to the first question is: We study ants because they are highly successful organisms - by some measures more successful than humans. And because they offer a compelling model of society. Parallels between ant and human society are many and may be described in ways that transcend qualities of the individual organisms. And we can do experiments on ant societies that are impossible to do with human ones.
In reading this book, Jared Diamond's Guns, Steel, Germs, and then Montesquieu's Constitution I was struck by a common idea. The ants that live in resource rich locations such as the African jungles have evolved large-scale highly centralized, highly specialized societies. They have many specialized castes. Diamond notes the same of human societies. Ants living in the Australian Outback find the location resource-poor and there is little specialization and almost no social heirarchy. Diamond found the same of Australian Aborigines. Montesquieu, in Constitution observes that when material wealth rises above moderate levels and becomes concentrated in one class, republics fail and turn to more centralized forms - as happened in Rome. He observes "Monarchy is more frequently found in fruitful countries and a republican government in those which are not so. This is sometimes a sufficient compensation for the inconveniences they suffer by the sterility of the land." This leads us to ask whether loss of liberty is an inevitable social consequence of material plentitude.
In studying ants we may not learn whether specialization can exist alongside liberty, but we certainly can learn that specialization depends upon resource plentitude. And it is quite surprising that this is such a fixed rule of society until we think about the fundamental requirements of a society's individuals. Then it begins to take the form of a universal law.
This is by no means a political book. It makes for quite entertaining and lively reading. The pages are sprinkled with illuminating diagrams and illustrations. The language is clear and readable. It clearly makes the case that societies have behaviors that occur almost independent of the qualities of their individuals - apart from their tendency to form societies. The study of ants is unique in its ability to give us a clear and objective view of the dynamics of societies. It is almost impossible to study ants and not come away with a deeper understanding of human society. For this reason the book is recommended for all readers regardless of their interest in the individual ant, or biology in general, or ant society per se.