Thursday, January 27, 2011

Leaf cutter ants: the frenzy of publishing

If you like lavishly illustrated books on ants, you might want to consider Hölldobler and Wilson's latest oeuvre: The Leafcutter Ants: Civilization by Instinct. If you prefer those images moving - images that are even more impressive then you might want to get Thaler's movie Ameisen, die heimliche Weltmacht. One of the most impressive scene is the concrete mold of an entire attine nest in Southern Brazil. This book is an excerpt of a chapter on the authors book "The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies" that has been extended. Attines are at the very moment one of the most fascinating area in research well beyond ants that has generated a huge amount of insights, enabled mainly through DNA technologies that allows to study their fungi, their bacterias and other commensals living in this often huge system.
That it is hip is more than confirmed by the authors of the present book: Both of them are very eloquent writers but for my taste a bit too opportunistic by summing up ideas in a form, that are neither scientific nor popular in a general sense. The ideas presented get referenced in scientific writing later on, and not so much the original authors. This is a long history going back at least to the begin of the sociobiology debate and Bill Hamilton's genetic theory on social behavior.

A differnt kind of critique is in Mikheyev's review in Myrmecological News.
(...) a part of me wants the comprehensive fungus-gardener reference that will serve as the cornerstone of attine research, one that focuses on the cuttingedge discoveries and debates. But is it possible to write such a book today? Probably not, given the accelerating pace of research in this field, and the admittedly limited market niche. But perhaps books are no longer the best format for this sort of material. Rather, knowledge can be better summarized in wiki-based repositories built by the community, which can remain up to date and relevant continuously.
Although the current academic system does not reward individual scientists for investing into such endeavors, perhaps, as well-acknowledged masters, HÖLLDOBLER and WILSON could lead the way. What if the next version of The leafcutter ants would exist as a beautifully written community maintained online reference?

At the current time, there is no fame and money involved in Wiki's and too much of altruism required to run such a tool, that, without doubt will be the future; certainly not in Wilson's and Hölldobler's generation, may be not even in our, but the next generation of scientists.

[Photocredit: Thaler]