See How They March

Illustration by Tavis CoburnAFTER SEEING ANTZ AND A BUG'S LIFE, YOU MIGHT have lulled yourself into the slightest misimpression that, though the effects of globalization may continue to elude, you've at least got those tiny creatures figured out. Surely, queens still preside in royal command, generals issue edicts carried out by he-man soldiers, workers are assigned to Taylorized workstations based on class -- it all sounds, well, remarkably familiar. In Antz, Woody Allen's character, Z-4195, even rises from a psychiatrist's couch to warble the ubiquitous modern plaint: "I'm supposed to do everything for the colony, and what about my needs. What about me?"

Now along comes a smarty-pants evolutionary ecologist, Deborah Gordon from Stanford University, to straighten out our misconceptions about the ants. She's relentlessly direct and cheerful as she dismantles one after another, basing her conclusions on 20 years of study in the Arizona desert, where she's centered her research on a particular red harvester ant, the Pogonomyrmex barbatus. There's no royal hierarchy in ant society, as it turns out, with queens giving orders through generals. Colonies are populated primarily by nonreproductive females who do the heavy lifting: building the colony; seeking out food; defending terrain; raising, tending and feeding the next generation. Males have an extremely restricted role that lasts only a few weeks: They prepare for a single flight, attempt to mate with the new queen and then promptly expire. Queens are no imperial figures; they're really just the colony's ovaries. And about that supposition that ants are the model of industriousness ("Look to the ant, thou sluggard," the Bible advises in Proverbs)? Gordon surmises that three-quarters of the ants on any given day are just hanging around downstairs.

Gordon's book, Ants at Work, is a remarkably cogent and deftly accessible new portrait not just of how ants organize themselves in colonies, but of why we care. Her underlying point is this: It's precisely the alien characteristics of ant society, the ways in which they're profoundly unlike us, that, in the end, prove most intriguing.

A fundamental challenge concerns hierarchy, and our predisposition to assume there are leaders in any complicated society. We often want to know, first of all, who's calling the shots. "The basic mystery about ant colonies is that there is no management," Gordon writes. "A functioning organization with no one in charge is so unlike the way humans operate as to be virtually inconceivable . . . Not only is an ant colony's behavior complex, woven from zillions of ant acts, but all those tiny events add up to something different from any society we know. Stories about totalitarian societies, inexorable armies and voracious monsters are often told as stories about ants. But ants have no dictators, no generals, no evil masterminds. In fact, there are no leaders at all."

In her effort to understand how a zillion interactions form patterns of behavior, the 44-year-old biologist has methodically tracked the life histories of 300 harvester-ant colonies spread across a 25-acre swatch of chaparral. Colonies are really superorganisms, meaning that ants are akin to cells in the body rather than autonomous individuals. So Gordon focuses her attention on the dynamic interplay in a web of relationships in three overlapping circles -- among individual ants, between neighboring colonies, and between ant populations and their environment.

In tracing the life cycles of colonies, Gordon has found, in one particularly intriguing line of research, that ant societies of different ages respond quite differently to perturbations. Older colonies, for one thing, prove far less reactive to disturbances and far less aggressive toward neighbors. This finding is all the more startling because individual worker ants live for no more than a year. So how does a colony "learn" to react differently over time? Where does memory reside in the labyrinthine channels below the nest entrance?

GORDON'S IDEAS ARE CONTROVERSIAL AMONG REsearchers who study "social insects" because she takes on a few key concepts developed by the world-renowned ant researcher Edward O. Wilson, who recently retired after a distinguished career at Harvard. Wilson's oeuvre, summed up in the mammoth Pulitzer Prize­winning 732-page compendium The Ants (written with Bert Holldobler), pivoted on the notion that ants are "the culmination of insect evolution, in the same sense that human beings represent the summit of vertebrate evolution." Wilson credited the forces of natural selection in creating colonies that "optimize" their ability to reproduce, and stressed the importance of "ergonomic" efficiency achieved by heritable divisions of labor defined by established "castes" within ant society.

Gordon argues, by contrast, that even a lowly ant's role in life is less fixed by heredity, and more subject to environmental and social cues, than Wilson had suspected. Ants switch jobs based on complicated cues, from one another and from their environment, Gordon found. In her view, Wilson emphasized Darwinian natural-selection theory in a distorting way. Dynamic interplay, flux and serendipity weren't given their due. "It is always easier for me to think about the evolution of colony behavior when I am in my office far away from Arizona," Gordon writes. "When I am standing in the field of ant colonies, so much seems to impinge on the ants. There are so many links to the plants, the other animals, the rain and soil, that it is hard to believe that we could ever guess the direction that selection is taking."

During a period when school-board members around the country are debating whether children should be taught the "theory" of evolution at all, it may seem fine parsing to quibble over genetic determinism in the behavior of ants. But the most interesting thinking among scientists about how evolution actually occurs takes place precisely at this intersection, where genetics, animal behavior and ecology meet.

WHAT'S THE POINT, IN THE END, OF STEPPING INTO the unfamiliar world of the ants? Gordon makes a compelling case that patterns of organization among ants -- which have been on the Earth for 100 million years, after all -- are similar, in some respects, to computer networks, embryos and even the brain. "You could dissect a brain into millions of separate nerve cells but would never find any dedicated to thinking about 'nature,' or 'ants,' or anything else; thoughts are made by the shifting pattern of interactions of neurons," she writes. Ants, in this sense, may well help us understand how, in vastly varied biological systems, a sum becomes more than the collection of its parts.

That may not add up to feature-film material. But this welcome report from the field is, nonetheless, a lively exploration of the central mystery of life.

ANTS AT WORK: HOW AN INSECT SOCIETY IS ORGANIZED | By DEBORAH GORDON | The Free Press | 182 pages | $25 hardcover