Tales from the Ant Man and much more
Reviewed in the United States on December 4, 2020
Dr. Edward O. Wilson has been a mentor of mine since I read his first book, The Theory of Island Biogeography (first released in 1967, with a new edition now available as of 2001). When that book was released, I was in my last year of graduate school, one year away from my doctorate in herpetology, and at the beginning of my 50+ year career of work on the herpetofauna of Mexico and Central America. Through his remarkable and unprecedented career in biology, Dr. Wilson’s books came in a steady stream of epic efforts to look at the big picture regarding the animals on which he chose to focus, i.e., the ants, and their social makeup, as well as what he learned about the evolutionary history of human society. He has invented whole new fields of biological endeavor, through such books as Sociobiology: The New Synthesis that have provided an entirely new framework for understanding the evolutionary origins of social behavior, including that of our own species. At that time (1975), I was a few years into my teaching career at Miami-Dade College (MDC, then Miami-Dade Community College). Only three years later (1978), a monumental study of our species called On Human Nature, brought Dr. Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, an almost unheard-of achievement for a professional biologist. In 1984, he introduced the term biophilia into our lexicon, in the book of that name, which introduced the startling concept that humans actually love life, that they have an inherent affinity for the life on our planet, even it was subconscious, and even, seemingly, manifested often as the reverse, i.e., biophobia. By this time, my family and I had been living for several years on a piece of land about three miles away from the border of the Everglades National Park. A few years later (1992), Wilson authored a striking book entitled The Diversity of Life, which introduced the then-novel concept that humanity had created a brand-new way to degrade the Earth by the means of what came to be known as biodiversity decline, i.e., the driving of species of other organisms to extinction by a myriad of means. Since I was one of those biologists whose career was devoted to the study of biodiversity, in my case with reptiles and amphibians in Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), this book was especially influential for me. This year also was the one during which Hurricane Andrew destroyed the home I had built for my wife and children, so it was a turning point for my private life as well. Two years later, Wilson told the story of his scientific development in the charming narrative Naturalist, a book that resonated strongly with me, as another boy who has grown up in the small-town atmosphere of the Midwest, as Wilson had done in the mid-South. In 1998 Wilson gave us Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which presented the seemingly obvious premise that knowledge had become segmented into separate discipline areas that, especially in the formal educational arena, had limited interchange, leading to study moving along divergent, not convergent trajectories. Wilson argued for a unification of these trajectories in an effort to reestablish “the unity of knowledge.” As it so happened, at this time, I was beginning to explore the impact of critical thinking educational theory on the educational process, an interest that has continued to the present day. Four years later (2002), Wilson authored the seminal book The Future of Life, in which he advanced the thesis that planetary biodiversity is under threat from human action and inaction, but that it is still possible for humanity to retreat from the brink of eco-collapse should it commit to “environmental stewardship.” Such has yet to occur and so Wilson was left to continue to press his point. In my own case, one of my most important books The Amphibians of Honduras appeared and established that this group of creatures in this Central American country was one of the most significant anywhere in the world. In 2006 Wilson authored The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, which posited an alliance between science and religion to accomplish what the book’s title indicated. As appealing as this approach was, it still has not risen to the attention of the world’s political leaders, which is especially so blindingly evident presently in the United States. At this juncture, I was coming off of several years of working on the herpetofauna of the Honduran Mosquitia, the most remote region in this Central American nation. The Social Conquest of Earth was written six years later (2012) and in it Wilson explored the evolution of society and culture in the human species and how that evolution has contributed to the survival of our species. At this time in my career, I was transitioning from a focus on the Honduran herpetofauna to one on the Mexican herpetofauna. Two years later (2014), Wilson wrote The Meaning of Human Existence to attempt to answer the twin questions of from where we have come and where are we going. My own work was beginning to be focused on the significance and conservation of the Mesoamerican herpetofauna, an effort that has continued to the present. Two years later (2016), Wilson authored Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, in which he posited the idea that half of the Earth’s surface should be given over to preserves for the protection of biodiversity so as to attempt to guarantee a continued existence for planetary life. By this juncture, I was working with a group of colleagues in detailing the herpetofaunal diversity of various regions of Mexico, work that also continues to the present. Wilson, for his part, was continuing his exploration of the human condition in The Origin of Creativity (2017) and Genesis: The Deep Origins of Societies (2019).
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.
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