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‘Superorganism’ book launch features authors, adventures

October 10, 2008

Arizona State University and its School of Life Sciences will host an evening that highlights the beauty, elegance and strangeness of insect societies featuring Pulitzer Prize winning authors and scientists Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson and the book launch of “The Superorganism” at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix.

 Anyone who recognizes the persistent buzz of bees during spring bloom, had their picnic overrun by ants or heard the munching sounds of thousands of termites turning their floor joists to dust, knows that social insects play a dominant, if oft unrecognized, role in terrestrial ecology.  

What makes these insect collectives tick? That question has held ASU Professor Bert Hölldobler and Harvard University Professor Emeritus E. O. Wilson entranced for nearly a half a century. As the authors express it, it is the insects astounding evolutionary success based on their remarkable systems of division of labor (involving hundreds and thousands of individual organisms) that never ceases to inspire. 

“If alien scientists had landed to study the Earth’s pre-human biosphere, one of their first projects would have been to set up beehives and ant farms,” insists Hölldobler. “This is our biased guess, of course, because we have been fascinated by the social insects and in particular by the ants, during our entire scientific lives.” 

“The Superorganism” is their first major collaboration since the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Ants.” In the new book Hölldobler and Wilson share their passion and a brilliant new look at social evolution and the remarkable growth of knowledge concerning the social insects during the past two decades.  

Hölldobler believes that one of the most exciting frontiers in biology is “the exploration of these insects’ remarkable behaviors, and tracking down what makes so many individuals work in synchrony, as a single, highly integrated superorganism.” Hölldobler is a key member of the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which focuses on developing understanding of the roots of such interactions in multiple systems, from ants to humans to computer networks.   

“The Superorganism” is filled with details that will fascinate all readers, for example, how foraging workers of honeybees and ants communicate and direct nestmates to distant food sources, how workers of Diacamma species conduct dominance fights and mutilations in order to regulate reproduction within the colony, and how a queen of an Atta ant colony can live over a decade and produce as many as 150 million daughters.  

Roughly 13,000 species of ants have been described, Hölldobler says, and another estimated 17,000 still elude discovery. With hundreds of different forms, habits, lifestyles, and quirks, ants are among the most fascinating creatures on the planet, from the tiny Temnothorax species, long-lived and gregarious, whose entire colony can fit in a nut-shell, literally, to the intricate activity of nature’s underground farmers, the leafcutter ants. 

Earth's “ultimate superorganisms,” are how Hölldobler characterizes leaf-cutters, with their sophisticated communication, elaborate caste system, air-conditioned nest architecture, and populations in the millions, rivaled only by the great colonies of the African driver ants. Hölldobler and Wilson’s portrait of driver ants is not far removed from Hollywood’s killer colonies in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”  

“Viewed from afar, a huge raiding column of a driver ant colony seems like a single living entity, a giant amoeba spreading across 70 meters of ground.” Hölldobler says. “A close look reveals a mass of several million workers; a river of aggressive huntresses, capturing and killing most of the insects in its path.” 

Superorganisms, those self-organized entities that emerge from countless interactions of hundreds, thousands or millions of individuals tightly knit by altruistic cooperation, complex communication, and division of labor, find their highest expression in the insects, according to Hölldobler. And while the concept of the collective – the superorganism – is not new, and indeed has been popularized in novels, movies and television, it is gaining new impetus and understanding as scientists, such as Hölldobler and Wilson,open up for view a part of the living world previously glimpsed by only a very few. By examining ants, bees, wasps, termites and other species, biologists can now trace the evolution of superorganisms in exacting detail, all the way from their antecedents among solitary species to the origin of the most complex forms. Hölldobler and Wilson offer a rich history, set of experiences, and knowledge base that allows an early clear look at one of the major transitions of life, which proceeds from molecule through cell to organism, superorganism, and population and finally to ecosystem. 

“Social insects play a very important role in almost all land ecosystems,” says Hölldobler. “The nature of our planet without ants, bees or termites would look very different. The tremendous ecological success of these social insects, whose biomass is close to that of all humans, is certainly due to their elaborate systems of division of labor and complex social organizations. In fact, ant societies are considerably more complex than those of any other animal species. They are fantastic model systems for the study of social complexity and the evolution of social life on Earth.”  

The attendees of the national book launch will share in these scientific luminaries’ adventures and have an opportunity to interact with two renowned biologists. Hölldobler is a member of several national and international Academies, among them the German National Academy of Sciences (Leopoldina), the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Sciences (USA). He is also the recipient of numerous honors, among them the Pulitzer Prize, the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Science Foundation, one of the highest science prizes in Europe, and the National Merit Medal of Germany. He has authored three books with Wilson.

In addition to two Pulitzer Prizes, conservationist Wilson is author of more than 25 books and the recipient of more than 100 international medals and awards, including the National Medal of Science; the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, given in fields of science not covered by the Nobel Prize; and for his conservation efforts, the Gold Medal of the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Audubon Medal of the National Audubon Society.

“The Superorganism” book launch is one of a series of events leading up to Arizona State University’s celebration of the 200thth anniversary of his publication of “On the Origin of Species.” anniversary of Darwin’s birth date and the 150

Coined “ASU Darwinfest,” the university is sponsoring a fresh look at the intellectual and translational products that have arisen as a result of the founding of evolutionary theory and its application to science and technology. “How bold ideas can change worlds” sets the tone for a range of exceptional speakers and events, including a Darwin look-alike contest, teacher’s workshop, and panel discussions around gender, race, religion, and teaching. More information at: 

“The Superorganism” national book launch begins at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Desert Botanical Garden, 1201 W. Galvin Parkway, Phoenix ( The event is free and open to the public. Seats are limited and reservations are required. For reservations contact:; 480-727-8934.   To reserve a first edition copy of “The Superorganism” (at a 20 percent discount), published by W.W. Norton, contact Scott at the ASU Bookstore 480-965-4165. Books will be available for purchase and signing the night of the event.