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The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies Hardcover – November 17, 2008
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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.
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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. Perhaps one chapter on foraging signaling outside the nest (alarms, trails, nestmate recognition etc.) and one chapter on signaling within the colony (role of the queen, caste recognition, brood recognition etc.) would have been more manageable. There are several examples when ideas or information are repeated within pages of one another, often using almost the same wording. Another round of serious editing might have tidied the book up.
The "Superorganism" title is perhaps an overstatement; there is very little about wasps, bees and termites (but in fairness the authors do say the book is mainly about ants in the introduction). I was disappointed in the lack of material on termites, since these are not hymenoptera, and therefore a thorough going comparison of the principles by which ants and termites construct their societies would perhaps have revealed core rules of insect sociality that exist independently of taxonomic rank. The book is about 500 pages- but it is not 500 pages of reading. The margins are vast, one inch left and two inches right on a 7.5 inch page, so 40% of the book is white space right off the bat. Most pages are heavily footnoted (which is obviously necessary) but it also reduces the read space quite significantly. There are in addition empty pages between chapters so I would guess the primary text probably comes in at about 250-300 pages. This may be evidence of high production values, but in this age, when we understand the deleterious environmental impact of the pulp and paper industry, we might have expected some eco-parsimony from "two of the most renowned biologists in the world" (as the cover flap puts it). I would have preferred some of the white space to have been used expanding the discussion beyond ants.
1- The understanding of chemical communication is a bit too simplistic for my taste, thus loosing explanatory power. Odors can last for decades (smell sandalwood for example) or seconds (bursts of methane). Measured in ants lifespan, this difference is far larger than that between spoken and written words in humans. However, the book treats all these communication systems as basically the same. This might explain your difficulty in understanding the role of the wrongly called "cuticular hydrocarbons". What insects have is chemicals on the cuticle, which include some hydrocarbons whose synthetic origins are only diffusely known. Most insects are anosmic to hydrocarbons. That is, they do not smell them. An analogy of how many biologist with poor chemical knowledge view chemicals on the cuticle of insects is a fake perfumer who assigns to fixatives and solvents, and not to essential oils and fragrances the bouquet humans perceive in fine perfumes. The non volatile base of a perfume regulates the rate at which volatile chemicals are released, but it is the odors (i.e volatiles) that are perceived by the nose. Mandibular gland secretions produce a variety of chemicals, with very variable evaporation constants. Some of them are absorbed by waxes spread over the insect's cuticle and remain there for long periods of time, giving a smell to the body of the insect. This system is very similar to the human body smell, were volatile chemicals, waxes (i.e. hydrocarbons) and micro-organisms interact to produce our characteristic individual smell. I still do not know of an electroanntenographic experiment which convincingly shows that hydrocarbons are perceived by insects. Electroantennography, however, shows that insects are very sensitive to oxidized hydrocarbons produced in the mandibular glands.
2- I missed a more comprehensive treatment of ant wars. The spectacular examples of inter-colony war described for the european forest ant, the honey pot ants, and for leaf cutter ants, would have provided the reader with an insight of how different behavioral systems work together in producing socially relevant complex behaviors that are comparable to what humans experience. The interplay between territorial pheromones, the caste system, alarm displays, chemical and physical recruitment, nest capping, display dancing, fighting between workers of different sizes, and other features, make ant-wars a fascinating subject which was only lightly treated in the book.
3- I would not have written these comments but for the treatment of Hamilton's Inclusive Fitness Theory in the book. The authors present the narrative Maynard-Smith used as an alibi to try to expurgate himself for plagiarizing Hamilton's ideas after rejecting Hamilton's first paper while he was editing for Nature. I recommend reading Segerstrale, U. 2013 (Nature's Oracle: The Life and work of W.D. Hamilton. Oxford University Press), which appeared after this book was published. The works of Price, Queller, mine and others show that the power behind the hamiltonian definition of Inclusive Fitness goes much beyond the caricaturesque narrative of "Kin Selection". Assortation, social synergy and Michener's evolutionary paths to eusociality are a natural extension of Inclusive Fitness and are impossible to understand with Haldane's and Maynard-Smith's Kin Selection theory. I agree that Hamilton's Extended Inclusive Fitness Theory is not easy to grasp, whereas kin selection Theory is very simple and intuitive. But that does not make it true. Inclusive Fitness Theory is much more general than Kin Selection Theory. See my Expanded Inclusive Fitness Theory
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So much information and so well written. I read it twice to gather it all in and still need to read it again!