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The Lives of Ants – Laurent Keller and Elisabeth Gordon *****

We’re in the habit of moaning about OUP popular science because it’s often the case they have great subjects, but written by academics making the books often poor to read. The recommendation is that they get their academics to link up with a writer, and in effect that is what has happened here, as the book is a translation (probably from French) – and benefits hugely, because unlike many of its fellows it is a joy to read.
It would be ironic if that enhanced readability were coupled with a less than inspiring subject – but not here. The subject is, as it says on the tin, the lives of ants, and they are truly incredible. At risk of sounding like the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you may think you know about ants, but that’s nothing when you see the sheer variety and complexity of ant life. The different species indulge in all sorts of behaviours, from rearing insect ‘cattle’ to capturing slaves and invading others’ nests and pretending to be of that species. We discover a queen ant of one species that spends its life riding on the back of a bigger queen from a different species. And then there are the ants that grow crops, the different ways the queens operate, the unusual sexual practices – in one species the males clone themselves as well as the queens (the workers are more normally produced), the only known creature in which a male is capable of this.
It’s simply stunning. I was slightly puzzled there wasn’t more about the super-organism concept, something that books about bees like The Buzz about Bees and The Super-Organism cover in a lot of detail. If the authors don’t think ants are a super-organism – i.e. a nest is effectively one creature, with the different insects acting almost like cells in a human’s body – then they should say so, and why. If they do think ants are a super-organism it ought to have been given more coverage. There is a passing reference to ‘swarm intelligence’ which may be the same concept, but it only really comes in the section on robots with ant-like behaviour, in itself an interesting bit of work, but not the main theme of the book.
I only have two other slight moans. One is that too long is spent on something that’s clearly of more interest to the author than the reader. This looks at the percentage of genetic relationship two ants have to each other on how this effects the way the ants treat each other. It goes on a bit. The other complaint is a simple factual error. We are told that ten million billion ants averaging three milligrams per ant weights roughly the same as the whole human population. Some basic arithmetic shows this to be wrong. There are around 6 billion people in the world – let’s make it 5 for ease of calculation. So that’s 2 million ants per person. Two million lots of three milligrams is six kilos. Now I know there are a lot of babies in the world, but there’s no way the average human being weighs six kilos – this is almost an order of magnitude out.
These are minor gripes, though, in what is a riveting book about a fascinating subject.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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