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It would be difficult to overstate the significance of ants. Bert Holldobler and Edward 0. Wilson rightly call them the “culmination of insect evolution, in the same sense that human beings represent the summit of vertebrate evolution.” Where they thrive, their impact on the environment is immense, whether as predators of other insects and invertebrates, consumers of plants or seeds, or movers of the soil. Some of the nearly nine thousand identified species are native to every continent but Antarctica. They form a significant percentage of the biomass in many environments. Perhaps most important, their success has been dependent on their evolving a complex social order in which the good of the whole colony is more important than the survival of any individual ant. This apparent “altruism” both fascinates scientists and raises questions about other animals that have evolved societies composed of more selfish individuals.

This volume is both a summary of current knowledge about these creatures and an attempt to identify some of the concerns and issues that will attract future researchers. It is full of tables, charts, and illustrations (photographs, paintings, and drawings) Data, theories, and conclusions are presented in abundance, with careful citations to the specialized technical literature. The bibliography of more than sixty pages, double- columned, is an indication of the scholarship that went into this work. Yet, despite the obvious erudition that was necessary for the writing of this book, The Ants, like all good science texts, does not claim to be the last word on the subject. There are a number of areas in myrmecology where research is still at a very early stage. Conclusions remain tentative. Evidence is contradictory or inconclusive. Holldobler and Wilson are quick to acknowledge their ignorance, or the ignorance of the scientific community as a whole, or identify issues on which there is no consensus among researchers.

For the very reasons that this book will endure as the standard text on the subject, The Ants will not appeal to readers with only a casual interest in these insects. The level of detail, such as the opening hundred-odd pages discussing classification and origins, will overwhelm anyone without a fervent curiosity about these insects. Even entomologists and other natural historians not specializing in these creatures may be put off by the weight of detail. Other potential readers, initially attracted by the magnificent drawings, paintings, and photographs, some in full color, will find the highly technical language a barrier. Those who love observing nature may be familiar with the technical language of biology but may be repelled by the textbook approach. The format, style, and language of The Ants is more characteristic of a reference work to be pulled off the shelf to answer a technical question or supply very specific information than a monograph that is read cover to cover. Alternatively, the book might be used as the text for a graduate-level course in entomology. Neither its weight nor its cost is conducive to casual perusal or impulsive buying.

Even the chapter organization discourages the casual reader. The first hurdle is the aforementioned discussion of classification, which most readers Could safely skip, and should—systematics is a branch of biology which wearies even some professional biologists. Then, after a number of chapters exploring general issues—the most attractive portion of the book for the nonspecialist—The Ants trails off with a series of chapters on highly specialized species. The sense is a narrowing of focus to particular types rather than a movement to higher levels of generalization. Instead of a final chapter reaffirming generalities about ants, tying up loose ends, the authors provide a how-to-manual on collecting, culturing, and observing the insects. This sort of material should have been relegated to an appendix. Readers who took up the book expecting Wilson to make some sort of leap from ant colonies to human society in the concluding chapters (Wilson is also well known for views on sociobiology, especially its applicability to humans; see hisSociobiology: The New Synthesis, 1975) will be disappointed. No such analogies are drawn, or even implied.

It would be unfortunate, however, if this book were restricted to the reference shelves in entomological libraries, to be consulted only by specialists. Despite the self-imposed limitations of language and format, the authors hint that they want to be read by more than a handful of fellow experts and future students. In the eyes of the authors, the ant colony is both a superorganism and an ecosystem. It can be dissected, in the sense of removing individual ants from the colony, then put back together again. This is a feat impossible with higher animals. The authors claim that ants are the foremost organisms for the study of behavioral ecology and sociobiology. Holldobler and Wilson complain that biologists have ignored ants, preferring to work with vertebrates, which are closer in size to humans. Although understanding why such a bias has prevailed, the authors deplore it because of the harm it has done to the progress of biological research. Biologists have failed to appreciate the value of ants in the exploration of some of the most fundamental issues in contemporary biology, including kin selection, competition, the shaping of societies by natural selection, the nature of physiological and behavioral regulatory processes in social organization, and hierarchy in control processes. Ants are social creatures with some activities analogous to those of humans in society and some that are quite different. Ants engage in war and make slaves of their fellow ants. They have developed social mechanisms that allow them to adjust to the presence of different species of ants. No example, however, has been found of two species of ants cooperating for mutual benefit. Unlike mammals, they do not play. Holldobler and Wilson contend that ants provide a bottom-up opportunity for the study of behavior and community ecology; issues of significance to humans, regardless of whether they are practicing entomologists. To that extent, the authors wish to reach at least other biologists, if not an even wider audience of scientists.

More than half the book, including most of the text, is dedicated to exploring how ants provide illumination for these larger issues. Many interesting points are made about concepts such as altruism, kin selection, and communication. What attracts scholars to ants is their social structure. The existence of the colony, where the nonreproductive workers sacrifice themselves for the good of their queens and the colony as a whole, must be explained. More specifically, scientists must provide a reason for the apparent selflessness of the nonreproductive workers, which is understandable in the context of natural selection and the assumption that genes are selfish. Holldobler and Wilson review the existing data and theories in detail but provide no easy or final answer. Here, as elsewhere, the scientific community has not come to final agreement on all the issues. The authors accept this uncertainty; nonscientists, seeing altruism as the issue with the broadest interest to them, may find it frustrating.

Can the nonspecialist read this tome with pleasure? Perhaps, but not likely. The reader of this book must be willing to commit the necessary and extraordinary time and effort required. Technical terms are used freely. Sentences are studded with literature references and the identification of species in Latin. Finally, Holldobler and Wilson utilize a style and format that are difficult at best and occasionally overly intricate. Charts and tables which should illuminate the issues sometimes simply demonstrate how complex these issues are.

Some of these impediments can be overcome by the dedicated reader, if one defines ’nonspecialist” as a biologist who is not a myrmecologist. The fairly useful glossary assumes a basic familiarity with biological terminology but not the language of entomology. Separate glossaries are provided for anatomical and taxonomical terms. If all these glossaries are photocopied and kept at hand, to be used conscientiously, the technical language is not impenetrable to those who already know the language of biology. The embedded references to the literature are necessary to the student but not to the more casual reader. They can be ignored in general reading, to be referred to only if the reader wishes to pursue a specific point through the bibliography.

Sources for Further Study

AB Bookman’s Weekly. LXXXV, June 25, 1990, p.2731.

Animals. CXXIII, September, 1990, p.33.

The Christian Science Monitor. May 29, 1990, p. 13.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 22, 1990, p.1.

Nature. CCCXLIV, April 26, 1990, p.894.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, September 27, 1990, p.36.

The New York Times Book Review. XCV, July 29, 1990, p.3.

Science. CCXLVIII, May 18, 1990, p.897.

Scientific American. CCLXIII, August, 1990, p.110.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 24, 1990, p.894.

The Washington Post Book World. XX, March 25, 1990, p.4.