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Planet Earth

E. O. Wilson Says Ants Live in Humanlike Civilizations

They do, after all, engage in many of the hallmarks of our societies: farming, warfare, and air conditioning.

By John WhitfieldOctober 12, 2008 5:00 AM
weaverantslg.jpg
Weaver ants build houses out of leaves using their larvae's silk to bind the seams. | Image courtesy of Norton

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Consciousness is overrated. With tiny brains and force of numbers, social insects have achieved most of the things we consider quintessentially human—farming, warfare, air conditioning—and have taken over the world. Ants alone weigh as much as the planet’s people, even before you add in bees, wasps, and termites. When it comes to pollination, composting, hunting, and gathering, these insects do most of the heavy lifting, and long after we have nuked/warmed/polluted/eaten ourselves to extinction, it is likely that they will keep the place ticking just fine.

Renowned sociobiologists and ant experts E. O. Wilson and Bert Hölldobler go so far as to call the most advanced insect societies—like the leaf-cutting ants, which cultivate fungus in air-conditioned nests with their own hygiene and waste disposal systems—“civilized.” It’s hard to disagree, although these civilizations are more Alien than Star Trek, dark and squishy worlds with buildings made from living bodies or stitched together by workers using silk-extruding grubs as sewing machines. Communication is mostly by smell, and it is staggeringly efficient: A milligram of a pheromone that ants use to mark their paths would lay a trail 60 times around the earth.

So what good is a big brain? It lets you work out what these social insects do, and why. Hölldobler and Wilson have done more than most in this regard, and their books—this is the follow-up to their Pulitzer Prize–winning The Ants, from 1990—are landmarks, yielding huge rewards to anyone willing to tackle the scientific basics. These guys make you proud of your own lumbering species.

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