October 6, 1999
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 the caste system. Gordon explains 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 Petoncillo 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. Their discoveries have profound implications for anyone who’s 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.
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.