The Superorganism

The subtitle is The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies and that is the new book by Bert Hölldobler and Edmund O. Wilson. 

This is another plausible candidate for best non-fiction book of the year.  I liked this paragraph:

Ants and other social insects are good at what they do, and they get better by means of cooperative labor.  Their behavior fulfills principles of ergonomic efficiency embodied in the Barlow-Proschan theorems.  When individual competence is low, the first theorem says, the reliability of a system of individuals acting together is lower than the summed competence of the individuals acting singly; but when individual competence is high, above a certain threshold level, the reliability of the system based on cooperation is greater.  According to the second theorem, one redundant system, whose parts that can be switched back and forth (as in colony members), is more reliable than two identical systems with no such backup parts.

Here is another good bit:

Whenever two kinds or organisms live in close mutualistic symbiosis, as is the case in leaf-cutting ants and their fungus, we should expect communication between the two mutualists.  The fungus may signal to its host ants its preference for particular vegetable substrates or the need for a change in diet to maintain nutritional diversity or even the presence of a harmful substrate.

Here is a New York Times review of the book.  The photos are wonderful too.  Here is a short paper on the work of Barlow and Proschan and the general topic of "reliability"; it has implications for the financial crisis as well.


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