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Ants at Work:
For as long as humans have been telling stories about animals, ants have played the role of hard-working, slavish, mindless drudge, the kind of creature that busily prepares for the future without resting or reflecting. But at least one species, writes Stanford University professor Deborah Gordon in this engaging study, slips free of our stereotypes. The harvester ant, an abundant denizen of the Southwestern deserts, seems to live in a society that is based on something like mutual aid, far from the six-legged dictatorships of fable--and, indeed, far from the human models that storytellers and ethologists alike have imposed on ant congregations. Gordon wonders, "If the ants don't work like a miniature human society, how does a group of rather inept little creatures create a colony that gets things done?" She proposes a number of answers in her wide-ranging book, one of which is this: ants get things done by accident, by experimenting with and constantly testing their surroundings to see what there is to eat, and who else is trying to get at it. Gordon writes with good humor about the daily work of studying insects in the intense heat of the desert, noting, "Over the years I have evolved a costume that includes a long-sleeved shirt, a cap with a kind of curtain around its lower edge, and the largest sunglasses I can find. I look rather like an insect myself." Readers approaching her book will find that they learn a lot about ants in the process--and also a lot about how field scientists get things done themselves. --Gregory McNamee [via]