Sunday, July 8, 2018

REVIEW: The Lives of Ants (nonfiction book) by Laurent Keller and Élisabeth Gordon, translated by James Grieve

The Lives of Ants is nonfiction.


I was cataloging a newer edition of a biology book and happened to come across this while I was hunting down the older edition for possible weeding. I don't read a lot of nonfiction - according to my records, I've only read or listened to approximately 13 nonfiction books in the past 10 years - but this looked reasonably interesting and social insects intrigue me.

My knowledge of ants is pretty limited. I've read a few popular science articles and I played SimAnt a lot when it came out (anybody else remember that game?). That isn't enough to judge whether the information in this book is any good.

That said, I found The Lives of Ants to be very readable, if not terribly well organized. The beginning of the book felt like the authors were throwing around information confetti. The bits and pieces of information were fun, but so brief and varied that it was clear the authors were only scratching the surface of an enormous topic. Also, I had trouble keeping track of which ant species were mentioned, and whether some of them had come up more than once. Species that were outside the norm in some way tended to get more attention. I suppose that's understandable since "weird" tends to make for more interesting examples, but it sometimes made it hard to get a good feel for just how far outside the norm they were.

Although there was certainly interesting information throughout the whole text, Part III was by far my favorite. Each chapter in this part was focused on a single ant genus. Chapter 13 covered Dorylus, army ants, chapter 14 covered Oecophylla, weaver ants, chapter 15 covered Cataglyphis, desert ants, and chapter 16 covered Myrmecocystus, honeypot ants. Unfortunately, most of these chapters only dealt with one or two features of these ants, albeit with more thoroughness than previous examples in the book. I was often left with questions about social organization, nest structure, etc. that weren't addressed.

Part II (Social Life), Part IV (Advantageous Liaisons - things like ant trees, aphids, etc.), and Part V (Bloody Pests! - covered things like supercolonies) were other sections I enjoyed, even as the authors sometimes frustrated me. It was often very difficult to get a complete picture of the life of a specific genus or species of ant. Yes, the book (thankfully) includes a species index, but I didn't particularly want to turn to that and jump around the whole book trying to piece together scraps of information. Besides, sometimes the information I wanted (such as more detailed information about "invasive" ant distribution - where is this species considered native and where is it invasive?) just wasn't in the book.

The worst section of the book were Parts VI and VII, which looked at the genetic basis for behavior and social structure. A huge portion of this was written as though ants could see their own genetic makeup and that of their nest mates and make decisions based on who was more or less related to them. Later on, the authors made it clearer that this behavior was based on scent, which has a genetic basis, but even then I had questions about how all of this was supposed to work, considering that the ants shared the same nest, would all be sharing their scents, and would therefore, I would think, all have very similar scents even if some were less related to each other than others.

The final section, "High-Tech Ants," dealt with robots and swarm intelligence's applications in artificial intelligence. It felt a little out of place but was, I suppose, intended to highlight myrmecology's broader applications.

The book included a section with color photographs, as well as several black-and-white drawings throughout. The thing that bugged me about the drawings was that their placement had little to do with the text. For example, one intriguing illustration of a parasitic queen (Teleutomyrmex schneideri) that has no workers, clings to Tetramorium caespitum queens, and lives in complete dependence upon her host queen and host queen's workers wasn't explained until 6 chapters (approximately 40 pages) later.

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