The Superior Civilization

From The New York Review of Books:

Book 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 Holldobler 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.

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