Ants at Work: How an Insect Society Is Organized

Deborah Gordon (Author)


A scientific tour de force, Deborah Gordon's Ants at Work takes us to the amazing world of an ant society and reveals a new and original understanding of how these tiny animals get the work of the colony done. Gordon's surprising and deceptively simple message that the queen is not in charge represents a fundamental shift in modern biology. It is no less than a revolution in our thinking on the mystery of natural organization.

Based on the author's seventeen years of research on harvester ants in the Arizona desert, Ants at Work overturns all standard ideas of insect society hierarchy. Gordon shows that an ant colony operates without any central control and that no ant has power over another. Yet the ant colony, harmoniously performs extremely complex tasks; including nest building, navigation, foraging, food storage, tending the young, garbage collection, and on occasion, even war. She shows that there are no territorial borders in the way we understand them because ants are always ready to change. Ants also switch from one task to another, which undermines the standard view that insect societies are run on a caste system. Gordon explores how ants use simple, local information to make the decisions that generate the complex behavior of colonies. New colonies are born, struggle to occupy a foraging area, grow larger, start to reproduce, and then settle in among their lifelong neighbors.

Superb drawings of ants and maps directly from Gordon's field notes enrich the experience of reading this breakthrough work. In these maps we discover what ants do when a neighboring colony disappears behind an enclosure and what they do when their neighbors suddenly reappear. We see where different tasks of ant daily life are performed. Through Gordon's wry sense of humor and lucid voice, we experience the delights and frustrations of spending blistering days in the desert between the Chiricahua and Peloncillo mountains of Arizona, pursuing the mystery of the fascinating behavior of Pogonomyrmex.

By focusing on chaotic patterns of behavior instead of searching for fixed universal laws, Gordon signals the future of scientific investigation. She boldly contends that ant communication is a model of how brains, immune systems, and the natural world as a whole organize themselves. Her discoveries have profound implications for anyone who is interested in how organizations work, from biologists and physicists to business leaders and pioneers of cyberspace. Ants at Work brings to the natural world the insights of a new era in the science of life.

Product Details

Free Press
Publish Date
August 07, 2011
5.4 X 0.6 X 8.3 inches | 0.45 pounds

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About the Author

Deborah M. Gordon, Ph.D., studied at Oberlin College, Stanford University, and Duke University, and researched at Harvard University and the University of Oxford before joining the faculty at Stanford, where she is Associate Professor of Biological Sciences. She lives in Redwood City, California


Frans de Waal Emory University, author of "Good Natured" and "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape" Gord on takes the reader along to her field station, where she is trying to figure out, via ingenious experiments, how individual actions add up to a perfectly managed whole.
Gene E. Robinson Department of Entomology, University of Illionols A unique and important book....It reads like a fine memoir; warm, reflective, humble, with timely injections of wry wit.
Paul Davies Professor of Natural Philosophy, University of Adelaide, Australia, author of "About Time" and "The Fifth Miracle" I love this book. Ant colonies are an intrinsically fascinating topic, and Deborah Gordon is a superb storyteller. This is deeply intriguing science related in an engaging and visualizable way. Deborah Gordon is set to become the Jane Goodall of entomology.
Sir Robert May Chief Science Officer for the United Kingdom "Ants at Work" shows how ant colonies operate so successfully with no managers of business schools, and it also gives an almost magical insight into the evolution and ecology of a group of highly successful animals. Outstandingly good.
R. C. LeWontin Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University An extraordinary work, Gordon completely revolutionizes the standard view of the structure and function of social organization in ants. It shows that ant colonies have a much more complex and subtle history both at the level of individuals and of colonies than was previously imagined. This is a completely new view of these social insects. Extremely will written and accessible to anyone interested in general scientific questions.
Murray Gell-Mann Nobel Laureate, Santa Fe Institute, member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, author of "The Quark and the Jaguar" Deboran Gordon's book is very hard to put down. She gives a delightful account of the colonies of one species of ant, but she also illuminates deep issues about emergent behavior in social insects and poses fascinating questions about its evolution.