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Tales from the Ant World Hardcover – Illustrated, Aug. 25 2020
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[Wilson] delivers an illuminating work filled with insights into his specialty subject: ants. . . . Wilson’s passion for his subject, for the scientific method, and for the natural world comes through clearly in this enjoyable survey.—Publishers Weekly
Readers seeking an accessible natural history on an often-misunderstood insect will appreciate Wilson’s modest, conversational tone in this brief look at his lifetime of appreciating nature’s small wonders.—Elissa Cooper, Library Journal
Praise for Edward O. Wilson
“Wilson speaks with a humane eloquence which calls to us all.” —Oliver Sacks
“In Mr Wilson ants have found not only their Darwin but also their Homer.” —The Economist
“One of our grand masters of synthesis.” —Richard Rhodes
“Part epic-inspired adventure story, part philosophy-of-life. . . . part ant life up close, part lyrical hymn to the wonders of earth. . . . yes, all of these.” —Margaret Atwood, New York Review of Books, on Anthill—
About the Author
- Publisher : Liveright; Illustrated edition (Aug. 25 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1631495569
- ISBN-13 : 978-1631495564
- Item weight : 386 g
- Dimensions : 14.73 x 2.54 x 21.84 cm
- Best Sellers Rank: #238,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Now, I have arrived at the point to examine what this world-class biologist has accomplished with Tales from the Ant World (2020). As I expect, most biologists around the globe know, E. O. Wilson is a premier myrmecologist or student of ant biology. He has written extensively about these fascinating animals from his early beginnings in Alabama, where he encountered the invasive fire ant that those of us who live in the southern United States know especially well, through his studies of the systematics of ants and their complex societies, in which “civilization by instinct” has been achieved, as described in the 2011 book coauthored with frequent collaborator Bert Hölldobler entitled The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct. Of worthy note is that this pair of myrmecologists won a Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1991 for their book The Ants, the second such prize awarded to Wilson.
Wilson’s tales begin with a suggestion for readers. He indicated that one of the most frequent questions he receives from laypeople is about what they can do with the ants in their kitchens. Wilson’s answer is straightforward and predictable. He suggests to such people that they accept the ants into their homes and learn from them. He states (pg. 11), “I recommend that you make use of your kitchen ants by feeding them and reflecting upon what you see, rather like an informal tour of a very foreign country.” As I am writing this, I am thinking about the approach most people would take to such a suggestion. More likely, with them, the approach would be “Where is the can of Raid?”
Wilson continues his tales with the admission that there is little for human society to emulate in ant society so that we need not look to them for moral lessons. He notes that ant societies are run by females and that males are little more than “flying sperm missiles.” Human males, by way of contrast, do not fly. He points out that ants and another group of insects, the termites, are the “little things that run the world,” inasmuch as ants are “the dominant land carnivores in the weight range of one to one hundred milligrams” (0.000035 to 0.0035 oz.) and termites are “the dominant consumers of dead wood.” More than 15,000 ant species currently are recognized, along with more than 2,000 species of termites. Both groups are eusocial, meaning that they exhibit “cooperative brood care, overlapping generations…, and a division of labor into reproductive and non-reproductive groups” (Wikipedia.org). This division of labor in eusocial insects allows for the two principal jobs for any animal species, i.e., survival and reproduction, to be accounted for by wholly differently structured members of the species, instead of both jobs being done by all members of the society, as in the case of our society. Ants have chanced onto a formula for success, a formula that has worked for the 150 million years this group has occupied the Earth. Our reign, however, has been limited to only about a million years since modern Homo sapiens emerged on the plains of Africa.
Wilson’s story of his scientific ontogeny I suspect is similar to that of others who had the good fortune to grow up in rural areas of the United States during the middle years of the 20th century. Although I did not have as early a start in my own field of herpetology as did E. O. Wilson in his, I still grew up in a small town in Illinois with access to what passed for semi-wild areas in the vicinity of the places where my grandparents on both sides lived. Part of what every biologist-in-training has to decide is, as Wilson put it, “what is the right species?” In other words, in what area of biology does one wish to specialize. Obviously, for the budding young Wilson the choice was everything. The fact that he ultimately chose to work on ants and not another group, such as flies or snakes, meant that he was able to study a group of insects that had evolved eusocial status, which was to lead to an interest in comparing their society to our own, which when combined with the concept of evolution by natural selection, eventually gave rise to what came to be known as sociobiology, an entirely new subdiscipline of his chosen field. Before all that came to pass, however, the budding myrmecologist went through a “fire ant phase,” during which he discovered the first mound of this fierce insect in Mobile, Alabama, where it had been introduced into the United States from its native range in South America. Since that initial introduction, the fire ant has spread throughout most of the southern United States, as well as elsewhere in the world, becoming one of the worst invasive species known.
Wilson continued to tell his tales from the world of ants with stories of different species he has encountered in his studies in places around the world, which have led to his description of some 450 new species among the more than 15,000 now known to exist. These stories are fascinating and illustrate a broad array of strategies for life among this group of eusocial creatures. These stories comprise the bulk of the book and constitute the principal reason for why anyone with a passing interest in the living world apart from our own intrusion into it would wish to read this delightful book.
The next to the last chapter of this book deals with what Wilson describes as the “ultimate superorganism,” i.e., the leafcutter ants. These amazing animals comprise what Wikipedia describes as “a group of synergistically interacting organisms of the same species.” Wilson considers these ants as the “most amazing” of all ants, in that they have evolved as insect “gardeners.” These ants build huge nests in which they use pieces of fresh wild vegetation to cultivate a food crop consisting of an edible fungus. Thus, these ants underwent their own Agricultural Revolution, analogous to that which occurred in our own history. I have encountered the large mounds of these ants in my own work in the tropics, which mounds are surrounded by a webwork of trails devoid of vegetation over which they trundle with their huge burdens of leaf pieces.
Wilson concludes this remarkable book by discussing the ants “that lived with the dinosaurs.” Ants, unlike humans, did coexist with these ruling reptiles prior to their own demise at the close of the Cretaceous era as an outcome of an asteroid collision. Wilson concludes Tales from the Ant World by stating that if he had a chance to go anywhere he wished at any point in time, he would wish to spend a few hours in “a Mesozoic forest, one hundred million years ago, teeming with ants…”
This book is a quick read, consisting of only 227 pages, but it is another wonderful example of this biologist’s amazing capacity for transforming a highly technical area of study, i.e., the formal pursuit of the secrets of ant biology, into a story that presents another side to these creatures who run the world that might stave off for a moment the rush to grab the can of insecticide when one of them shows up in the kitchen.
We learn about the creatures in general: their feminist, eusocial nature; their pheromone communications and their immense spread across the globe. Wilson then dives into specialized species: some who war, some who farm, some who enslave, some who harbor symbiotic parasites. The variety is fascinating.
This is a great read for any budding naturalist or anyone looking to know a bit more about the world around them.