This is a stunning book. Overwhelming. It achieves the impossible - combining excellent systematics (without dulling the senses) with natural history, biology, biochemistry, and a wealth of extraordinarily interesting detail. I have no doubt that E.O. Wilson is the most distinguished biologist of our times, but it is surprising, even so, that he not only combines profound knowledge of these 'little creatures who run the world' with considerable insight into the future trends of biological thought and progress, but manages to involve us personally in the ant world. The book is divided into 20 sections and it is worth listing them: the importance of ants; the colony life cycle; altruism and the origin of the worker caste; colony odour and kin recognition; queen numbers and domination; communication; caste and division of labour; social homeostasis and flexibility; foraging strategies, territory and population regulation; the organisation of species; symbiosis among ant species; symbiosis with other anthropods; symbiosis among ants and plants; the specialised predators; the army ants; the fungus-growers; the harvesting ants; weaver ants; collecting, culturing, observing. The illustrations, furthermore, are first-rate, giving adequate scientific data but also agreeable portraits and a feeling of swarming activity, in some cases tinged with horror. No doubt a feeling of anxiety engendered by vast numbers - whether of men or mites - is a genetic trait common to most of us. The joint author of this magnum opus, Bert Hölldobler, is himself a skilled and original myremecologist, an infectious, ebullient enthusiast and great photographer: he is able to bring considerable grist to Wilson's mill.
LRB 25 October 1990 | PDF Download