The Superior Civilization

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Bert Hölldobler
Two Atta sexdens leafcutter ants cooperating to cut a live twig of a plant; photographs from Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson’s The Superorganism

Ants are so much a part of our everyday lives that unless we discover them in our sugar bowl we rarely give them a second thought. Yet those minuscule bodies voyaging across the kitchen counter merit a closer look, for as entomologists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson tell us in their latest book, they are part of a superorganism. Superorganisms such as some ant, bee, and termite colonies represent a level of organization intermediate between single organisms and the ecosystem: you can think of them as comprised of individuals whose coordination and integration have reached such a sophisticated level that they function with some of the seamlessness of a human body. The superorganism whose “hand” reaches into your sugar bowl is probably around the size of a large octopus or a garden shrub, and it will have positioned itself so that its vital parts are hidden and sheltered from climatic extremes, while it still has easy access to food and water.

The term “superorganism” was first coined in 1928 by the great American ant expert William Morton Wheeler. Over the ensuing eighty years, as debates around sociobiology and genetics have altered our perspectives, the concept has fallen in and out of favor, and Hölldobler and Wilson’s book is a self-professed and convincing appeal for its revival. Five years in the making, The Superorganism draws on centuries of entomological research, charting much of what we know of the evolution, ecology, and social organization of the ants.

For all its inherent interest to an intelligent lay reader, it’s a technical work filled with complex genetics, chemistry, and entomological jargon such as, for example, “gamergate,” “eclosed,” and “anal trophallaxis.” Occasional lapses add to the lay reader’s difficulties. The etymology of “gamergate” (“married worker”), for example, which is so useful in understanding the term, is given only many pages after it’s first introduced. I fear that The Superorganism may reach a smaller audience than it deserves, which is a great pity, for this is a profoundly important book with immediate relevance for anyone interested in the trends now shaping our own societies.

Ants first evolved around 100 million years ago, and they have since diversified enormously. With 14,000 described species, and perhaps as many still awaiting discovery, they have colonized every habitable continent, and almost every conceivable ecological niche. They vary enormously in size and shape. The smallest are the leptanilline ants, which are so rarely encountered that few entomologists have ever seen one outside of a museum. They are possibly the most primitive ants in existence, and despite being less than a millimeter in length they are formidable hunters. Packs of these Lilliputian creatures swarm through the gaps between soil particles in search of venomous centipedes much larger than themselves, which form their only prey. The largest ant in existence …

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Letters

Are We Becoming a Superorganism? May 28, 2009