(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1433 words.)