Nature: Splendor in The Grass

A new book by noted entomologists looks to the ant for behavior's roots and discovers the iron laws of the superorganism

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The Ants is not only another milestone in a remarkable career but also a high point in crossover publishing. For the specialist, Holldobler and Wilson bring elegance and order to a complex subject. For the curious layman, there is a glimpse into the workings of evolution. Charles Darwin called it the tangled bank, a bucolic metaphor suited to his time and place. Today researchers see deeper into the diversity. "Mammals join societies as a means of furthering individual survival and reproduction," says Wilson. "Ants have arranged their social life so that the unit of survival is the colony." An ant is not an individual in the usual sense. Its life has no meaning apart from its colony, a superorganism that Wilson defines as "a sisterhood devoted to the survival of the queen." In sociobiological terms, males are sperm carriers tolerated only as inseminators of virgin queens. When ants go to war, Wilson points out, they enlist their old ladies, not their young males.

To a humanist, the ant superorganism is ruthless; biologists see it as efficient and cost-effective. A mechanism of this economy is altruism, which loses its noble meaning when applied to social insects. Ants are selfless only in the sense that they are genetically programmed to sacrifice themselves for the good of the colony. Their fates take startling forms. There are suicidal warriors, for example, that explode in the faces of their enemies, delivering toxic payloads.

Wilson gives a definition of altruism linked to a theory of kin selection. Simply put, the closer the genetic similarity between organisms, the greater the altruism. Admittedly, altruism is far more predictable in ants than in human beings, who lapse into fratricide and civil wars.

Sociobiology may not come close to clearing away all the mysteries of human behavior, but the discipline is a view from Darwin's shoulders, offering invaluable insights into the genetic roots of behavior. Unfortunately, many of these insights may never be gained. As Homo sapiens multiplies and forages like army ants, Wilson has grown alarmed about the millions of plant and animal species that are disappearing in civilization's path. Thirty years ago, he witnessed the beginnings of mass deforestation in the Amazon. Ten years ago, he became an active conservationist, with a touch of the ecological poet. Destroying rain forest for economic gain, Wilson now says, "is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal." If there is a gene for vivid imagery, future scientists should know where to look for it.

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