On Science

Overlooked agents of change

Ants ''represent the culmination of insect evolution,'' write Hölldobler and Wilson in their 1990 book, ''The Ants.'' Ants ''represent the culmination of insect evolution,'' write Hölldobler and Wilson in their 1990 book, ''The Ants.'' (Robin loznak/Associated Press)
By Anthony Doerr
November 16, 2008
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THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies
By Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson
Norton, 576 pp., illustrated, $55

EATING THE SUN: How Plants Power the Planet
By Oliver Morton
Harper, 460 pp., illustrated,$28.95

My 4-year-old twins have an ant farm. It's made of green and clear plastic and is half full of white sand. A week ago we dumped a dozen harvester ants into it. Since then the ants have excavated a network of tunnels, buried their dead comrades, stowed their food in a storeroom, and generally astonished us with their industry.

The feats of social insects are staggering. Termites - who rarely grow longer than a 12th of an inch - routinely construct cathedrals 20 feet tall, replete with staircases, gardens, nurseries, waste dumps, air-conditioning systems, and water wells. Leafcutter ants build roads impregnated with pheromones, forage for leaves, mold chewed-up leaves into pellets, and plant strands of fungus atop the pellets, which a farmer caste then cultivates for nutrients. Oh, and their single thumb-size queen might live a decade and produce 150 million daughters.

In their new 3-pound treatise, "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies," the world's most renowned myrmecologists (yes, there's a word for people who study ants), Bert Hölldobler and E. O. Wilson, aim to revive a century-old concept. They argue that big, complicated colonies, such as ones created by termites or leafcutter ants, function as a single organism.

Or, rather, as a "superorganism." In Hölldobler and Wilson's words, superorganisms "possess many of the attributes of an organism but [are] one step up from organisms in the hierarchy of biological organization."

As they lay out their case, Hölldobler and Wilson invoke many of the most interesting questions in biology. How do tiny and short-lived builders create architecture of baffling complexity? How does altruism fit into the picture? Is there a gene that promotes selflessness, and if so, what conditions select for it? Does evolution work through these colonies at the level of the individual, or does it actually select at the level of the group?

Hölldobler and Wilson, you might remember, won a Pulitzer for their exhaustive and beautiful 1990 book, "The Ants." It's worth noting that "The Superorganism" is not an update of "The Ants," though there is plenty of wonderful new information in it, especially a long, fascinating chapter about ponerine ants, about which much has been learned over the past 20 years.

"The agency of animals," writes Oliver Morton, in another book out this month, "Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet," "is a visible thing." Humans fight wars, cheetahs chase antelope, leafcutter ants farm fungus. The agency of plants, however, is mostly invisible. Trees don't stomp around eating songbirds and smashing up cars. "Their passivity," Morton notes, "makes it hard to see plants as drivers of change." And yet plants have rearranged the entire planet.

On the surface, Morton's new book is about photosynthesis. But to say this doesn't do "Eating the Sun" justice. Over the course of the last century, with something like quiet heroism, scientists have dissected photosynthesis, illuminating an exquisite symphony of biochemistry. Morton devotes the first third of "Eating the Sun" to charting the thrills of elucidating that symphony. The intricacies of the chemistry in this section get occasionally confusing, but hang in there.

In the latter two sections of the book, Morton starts hitting simpler, more accessible notes, and he hits them beautifully. For all of us who've shivered outside on a bitterly cold morning and muttered, "So much for global warming," "Eating the Sun" helps us understand the immense complexity of what's really going on.

This book is fundamentally about relationships. To even begin fashioning a model of Earth's carbon cycle, for example, one has to consider the time of year, the planet's reflectiveness, oceanic conditions, industrial emissions, and rates of chemical weathering, and a jumble of other factors. Indeed, the air we breathe is a rat's nest of intersecting loops, where one strand might be wobbles in Earth's axis, another the water cycle, another the nitrogen cycle, another the sulfur cycle, and so on. "Every change bumps up against another," explains Morton; "no cause is sufficient in itself."

Lots of individual forces operating in an ultra-complex system of feedback loops? Sounds a bit like a superorganism, doesn't it? Pretty much everyone now agrees that life is not a passive adapter but instead reacts to changes in an environment it actually exerts some control over. Hölldobler and Wilson put it simply: "The environment itself is always altered to some degree by the actions of organisms."

Planet and life, geology and biology - they're interdependent. The infinitesimal chemical reactions occurring inside the leaves in your backyard are ultimately connected to the gasoline in your lawnmower and the air over Kathmandu. And "Eating the Sun" elegantly traces the multiple, increasingly skewed reverberations inside that system.

We can no longer pretend that pumping more and more carbon into a warmer and warmer biosphere won't have profound and incredibly hard-to-predict consequences. In the last pages of "Eating the Sun," Morton sees hope in technology, in finding "new technologies that sit in the space between the photovoltaic cell and the leaf - new hybrids of industry and nature."

I see hope in my 4-year-olds, holding a magnifying glass to the wall of their ant farm. I see hope in the fact that we have elected a president who professes concern about the health of our planet's atmosphere. I see hope in the signs that America's complacency about the climate crisis may finally be fracturing.

Anthony Doerr is the author of "The Shell Collector," "About Grace," and "Four Seasons in Rome."

THE SUPERORGANISM: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies By Bert Hölldobler

and E. O. Wilson

Norton, 576 pp., illustrated, $55

EATING THE SUN: How Plants Power the Planet By Oliver Morton Harper, 460 pp., illustrated, $28.95 On Science By Anthony Doerr

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